The first is a book of stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the great Jewish story teller. I had never read Singer before (though he's "on the list", of course), and I only picked it up off my sister's shelf tonight because I did not bring a book with me, and after dinner I had a few minutes to myself.
It opens with a story that gives the collection its name: "The Spinoza of Market Street". Halfway through it, I recognized Singer's writing prowess (even through the translation from English into Hebrew, the original having been written in Yiddish) and decided that I cannot possibly leave the book at my sister's. It rests beside me now, and promises a rewarding read. That first story describes an aging, educated Jew, Dr. Fischelsohn, who is obsessed with Spinoza's Ethics, and leads an austere life guided by Spinoza's ideas of what the rational man ought to do, and of what happiness is. An unexpected turn of events makes him reconsider his convictions. It is written with compassion and an intimate feel. I loved it. As long as I have the book with me, I'm going to go ahead and read the rest of it.
Following that, I decided to take a look at his Nobel Lecture (he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. I urge you to read the lecture; it's short). Reading it, I was touched again by his evident compassion. I also noticed that the choice of Spinoza was not random, and that Spinoza is a lasting inspiration for him. Some of his words suggest that he is a Spinozic pantheist, but his appreciation of the Jewish mystical text The Zohar and of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav seem contradictory to that. But his words about poets strike deep, and Plato displayed an ignorance of the nature of mankind when he wrote that poets would not be allowed in the Republic. I am reminded yet again of Lord Dunsany's passage in The King of Elfland's Daughter. Actually, linking to that entry, I realize that some of you may not know the Tennyson line in question. It is from Blow, Bugle, Blow.
The second experience was a movie that my sister had rented, called Vatel, starring Gérard Depardieu. Read the IMDB.com plot summary to get an idea of the story.
The tape case promised an extravagant period piece. I got a lot more excited when I noticed the credit "English Adaptation by Tom Stoppard". Stoppard is brilliant, and beyond the plays of his that I've read, I absolutely loved his Shakespeare in Love script. So I expected fireworks. Disappointingly, the movie only had the visual kind of fireworks -- it is an extravagant period piece, but it is sorely mishandled, both in writing and in directing. Depardieu was good, but not excellent, and that's a shame; Uma Thurman, playing King Louis XIV's favorite-mistress-of-the-month, still can't act; Tim Roth portrays a standard court villain, etc. The movie only shines in the art direction aspect -- truly a visual feast, and worth watching just for that, I think. But the inspiring image and fate of Vatel (a historical figure) are wasted here.
However, I felt inspired by all this, and spent a couple of hours working on researching and writing an article (titled "Cleopatra's Table Manners") for Gargoyle, the Israeli Role-Playing Society's magazine. Sure, it's at least eight months overdue, and the editors have changed since I pledged to write it, but hey, better late than never...