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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A novel in the tradition of Tolstoy - but Life and Fate is by no means another War and Peace

Everything about it suggests that Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate, which he completed in 1960 but was held by Soviet authorities and not published till a microfilm copy was smuggled to France in 1980, would be a great 20th-century novel - one of those vast Russian works in the tradition of Solzhenitson and, especially, Tolstoy - an examination of a crucial period if Russian history, a novel in which scenes of military and domestic life develop in parallel - and yet - through the first 100 or so pages (it's a 900-page novel) this novel totally fails to live up to hype and expectation. We get various scenes of the siege of Stalingrad in WWII, but the scenes are so lifeless and bloodless and devoid of action and feeling - you almost understand why the Soviets wouldn't publish the novel; it would have bored too many Soviet citizens to death! None of the characters seems alive or distinct in any way; time and again Grossman misses opportunities to capture the military life as experienced by ordinary soldiers (as in two novels I've read recently about the first WW - All Quiet on the Western Front and War and Turpentine). There are a confounding # of characters, introduced abruptly and haphazardly. Obviously he's trying to write a 20th-century v of W&P, but he in no way approaches the narrative elegance of Tolstoy. W&P seems as if it would be hard to read but it's actually quite easy because Tolstoy's characters are distinct and his sense of action is vivid, always. Life and Fate is a slog from the jump. I am just getting into some chapters about domestic life, which focus on the family of a physicist living in exile from the war in a small city where they feel out of touch w/ intellectual and academic life. I will read more chapters today in the hope that maybe I was just unreceptive to this work yesterday (that happens - I always recommend giving books at least 2 days' worth of reading before putting them aside), but I'm not confident. Grossman may have been a dutiful scribe, but he does not seem to have the creative spark and insight that makes for a great or at least a good novelist.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A military novel in its purest form, devoid of ideology and almost outside of history: All Quiet on the Western Front

The brief afterword to the Random House "Reader's Edition" (who else would buy a book?) of Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, makes two good points. First, the editor (can't find editor's name online; sad) notes that here is no heroism in this novel; that is, it differs from most war fiction in that the life and death of the soldiers is almost entirely a matter of chance. Though there are some scenes involving courage, or at least endurance (notably, the night the narrator spends in a bomb crater alongside a dying French soldier) we don't have the sense that skilled or heroic soldiers have any better chance of survival than anyone else. The soldiers are part of a massive human attack wall, and some are mowed down by bullets or killed by explosions (later, by the advance of tanks) without distinction, just by chance. This novel makes the case that the 1st World War was the worst possible set of circumstances for foot soldiers: the military technology was lethal and there was no defense against advancing forces - just two armies facing off in trenches and killing each other one at a time until one of the forces has nothing left: pure brutality. Second point: The Nazi party and government hated this novel, tried to stop distribution, would have killed Remarque had he not taken refuge in Switzerland, and in fact did kill his sister. The crime: Showing German soldiers and cynical, vulnerable, sometimes afraid, sometimes shirking orders or standing up to authority - in other words, a realistic portrait of soldiers and military life (editor also notes, as I have posted earlier, that you could pretty much change the proper nouns and this could be a novel about English, French, or even American soldiers). This portrait directly opposed the Nazi vision of valorous, patriotic, loyal soldiers devoted to the fatherland; in fact, the one character who espouses patriotism and service is despised by the young men he'd encouraged to enlist. All Quiet is a war novel in its purest form, devoid of ideology and almost outside of history (in that it could, with the necessary changes, apply to any modern military action).

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The strange experience, for Americans, of fighting a battle within miles of the "homeland"

A few developments in Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, as a few of the German soldiers, recuperating in a base camp away from the front for a few days, swimming in the canal spot three French young women and begin flirting - and they make a date to meet them that night. The soldiers purloin some bread and sausages and swim across the river (naked, but carrying their boots!) and visit the young women; They ply them with provisions and then, presumably, have sex with the women (in keeping w/ protocol of the time, scenes of gruesome violence are OK but not scenes of sex). Readers have to think about these women: Are they prostitutes? Are they just that hungry that they'll sell their bodies for food? Are they just women out for a good time with some soldiers? There's no doubt that after the war these women will be branded as traitors, and perhaps justifiably. We develop some sympathy for the German soldiers over the course of this novel, but there are limits; consorting w/ the enemy seems beyond the pale. Later, the narrator goes home for 2 weeks of leave - a painful chapter as he feels he doesn't fit in anywhere; he senses that his family - mother ill w/ cancer, no social services to speak of, father working OT to pay medical bills, not enough food anywhere - is suffering, but he can't talk openly about the experiences of the front. He hears the usual bloviation from older men not in the service who have their own ideas about how to win the war and what territory German should seize - so easy for them to talk and boast, and there's nothing to say in response. In yet another painful scene he visits the mother of a dead comrade and swears to her that her son died instantly and w/out pain - an obvious palliative lie. It's strange for Americans to read of these two week visits home after service on the front, as we realize that for the past 150+ years we've never fought a battle on American soil. It's odd, to us, to have the battlefields so close to the "homeland" - making it easier in some ways to service, and in other ways much harder, as every town and village is in jeopardy. When the narrator returns from leave he's put to work in a post guarding Russian POWs, men who are suffering from near starvation. He is a humane man and provides them w/ some morsels of food when possible, and it's true that nobody really has enough to eat - but, still, the treatment of the POWs is deplorable and by today's standards - the Geneva Convention, if that's still in effect - borders on being a war crime.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A war novel without ideology: All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Marie Remarque's 1928 classic, All Quiet on the Western Front, is justly known for its depiction of battlefield conditions in the first World War - and by the middle of the novel, when the squadron of 150 men encounters its first days of continuous bombardment and attack, the vivid account of carnage becomes almost unbearable: details such as the rats and their constant attack on the few crusts of reak on which the soldiers depend for survival, the gruesome infantry attacks, w/ the German soldiers using spades (rather than bayonets) to kill or maim the French troops, the constant whistling, screaming, and thunderous explosion of shells and grenades, the aftermath with the moaning of the injured and maimed, the gas attacks that rip apart the lungs of the unwary, the rats fattening on the battleground corpses, so much, almost too much - and then the soldiers get a reprieve, a few days away from the front, and we wonder how they can ever summon the strength to go back. But Remarque's point is that the "veteran" soldiers - they're only 20 years old for the most part - become numb and inured, and as he notes several times they will never recover from the experiences they endured in the war (he wrote the novel about a decade after the war, in which he apparently served for a brief time in battle and a longer time in the hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds). English-language readers will always be a little uneasy reading this novel, which focuses on German troops attacking the French and possible English lines; in part of course the message is that for the ordinary soldier war is almost absurd - there's never a mention of any purpose in the war; the only hawkish patriotism comes from the elderly on the home front, notably the schoolmaster who encourages his students to enlist for the "fatherland." You could almost literally change the topical references and make this a novel about English, French, or even American soldiers and it would read just the same - translating not only the language but the nationalities - and that's also part of EMR's point - like that famous war poem "The Man He Killed." It's a novel about war stripped of politics and ideology.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A war stripped of politics, strategy, and enmy soldiers

Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, was brought to my attention recently when of all tings Bob Dylan cited it in his Nobel lecture s one of his 3 early literary inspirations - the only one of the 3 I hadn't read. I had, however, seen the movie when I was in h.s. and considered it one of the most influential films I'd ever seen - the first to get me to think seriously about pacifism and anti-war activities - in the beginning of the Vietnam era. I've read many novels about the first World War, most recently the excellent War and Turpentine, but reading All Quiet for the first time I can see that it was tremendously influential and formative, mainly because it's about the experience of war as lived and felt by ordinary foot soldiers. These soldiers are with the German army, pressing toward a front in France - but the nationality and the specifics of any one campaign are irrelevant. The power of this novel is that it's a work stripped of politics and of military strategy. It starts with the life of soldiers in an advancing army who are driven mainly by boredom, discomfort, and hunger. In the strange and powerful first scene they get their first full meal in sometime because an advance patrol lost half its men in an attack - so now the 80 remaining soldiers have enough rations for 150 men. The novel focuses on them martinet-like drill sergeants, the absurdities of military bureaucracy, and notably the bombastic patriotism of the schoolmasters who encouraged all patriotic young men to enlist - this latter played a big role in the movie and will I suspect in the novel, too. But just as we think this may be a forerunner to the mordant war comedy of say Catch-22, the men advance into a firestorm and we get a brutal scene of death, destruction, and survival by chance - a truly terrifying scene. What strikes me in particular is that we see absolutely no enemy soldiers - just the bombs, rockets, shells, bullets, and the sound of war - it's a war stripped of people and of antagonism, and all the more terrifying for that.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Thoughts on the ending of If Beale Street Could Talk and the forthcoming movie

There will be spoilers here, as I'm thinking about how Barry Jenkins may adapt James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk into a movie, with particular attention to the end of the novel. Now that I've finished reading the novel and have been surprised, in a sense, or maybe let down, by the ending, I think what Jenkins needs to do to give the narrative some structure and tension, that is, a dramatic arc, is to focus more than Baldwin did on the illegal incarceration of Fonny. I think I'd begin with the young couple, Fonny and Tish, as they search for a loft in which they can live and Fonny can work on his sculpture; there's a nice scene in the novel - almost at the end! - in which they rent the loft from a sympathetic landlord. Then they go out to celebrate, have a nice dinner at a restaurant owned by Fonny's friends, and then a confrontation at a grocery store where a young Italian guy starts touching Tish, Fonny comes to her rescue, and a racist cop intervenes and is obviously infuriated and humiliated by Fonny. Thus begin the troubles. I think there's a moment when Tish spits at the cop, and this can be the bridge back to the beginning of the relationship between Tish and Fonny - the screenplay can cut all they way back to their childhood and then bring them up to the present - and then the trouble resumes, as the cop engineers Fonny's arrest on rape charges (Jenkins will have to build this out more than Baldwin does). Then begin the family disputes over the fate of Fonny, and a rather desperate and odd effort to prove his innocence by tracking down the victim all the way to Puerto Rico and trying to get her to w/draw her testimony. The real dilemma: Does Jenkins want to stay true to Baldwin's vision and end w/ Fonny in prison for an indefinite period awaiting trial? With Fonny's father a suicide, frustrated by his inability to raise enough $ for bail? It's such a dark ending, and feels almost slapped on, as if Baldwin just had to finish with this novel so pulled some plot elements together in a rush. Yet that is his vision, and I doubt his executors would approve a version that completely changes the vision. Maybe there's a compromise - with Fonny out of prison but still facing doubt and anxiety about the forthcoming trial? As all of the world knows, there are many racist cops and literally countless frame-ups of young black men - but this story goes even further and imagines a complete racist conspiracy, a cop literally waiting for a crime that he can nail on Fonny, even though there is a ton of exculpatory evidence. Jenkins might do better to tone that down - not make it about a criminally vindictive cop but about a racist and indifferent system. All told, I thought this novel was headed toward a more upbeat conclusion - following on yesterday's post, I'd thought that JB made a point of noting that Fonny was not circumcised and I thought that would be a key bit of exculpatory evidence, boy was I wrong; I suspect Jenkins may ease off on the despair at least a little, making it a story of sad times but with a ray of hope, like the adaptation of Sapphire's Push (movie title: Precious).

Friday, July 14, 2017

Issues Barry Jenkins will face in adapting Baldin's novel for the screen

A couple of scenes in James Baldwin's 1974 novel (his last?), If Beale Street Could Talk (do others find this title kinda odd, given that the entire novel takes place in Manhattan? - I get the reference, but still), that Director Barry Jenkins (of Moonlight, looked his name up, sorry) will have to consider as he adapts this novel for his next film include: the "summit meeting" between the 2 families, Tish's and Fonny's (sorry, got his name wrong in yesterday's post my bad) to inform all that Tish is pregnant (while Fonny is in prison). What starts off as an OK meeting between two families that seem to bear each other no animosity becomes a violent, profane confrontation between the 2, leading to a complete break (this may touch on the Romeo-Juliet doomed lovers theme that JB introduced, though it's not quite the same as two long-term feuding families and a forbidden love affair - this just pushes the young couple into Tish's family orbit and estranges them from Fonny's). Jenkins will have to make this a central scene, but will have to cut radically; the novel reads much like a play at this point, but it would take far too much screen time to preserve all of the dialogue. The first sex scene between F and T will obviously be in the movie, but (one hopes) without all the talking and w/ no voice-over narration from T. The post-sex scene when the young couple goes to T's family to announce that they plan to get married is sweet and realistic and I'm sure BJ will want to make this a central, character-establishing scene. The big question is: How much of the false-arrest plot will he preserve and how will he handle it? To be honest, it's not Baldwin at his best here. Fonny was arrested on what by all accounts appears to be a case of mistaken ID and of police racism and malfeasance: He is charged w/ raping a woman, and a lot of the facts don't match up: he was far away from the scene at the time, for one thing. What Baldwin never or at least has not yet made clear is why and how the police would nab Fonny as a suspect. This element of the plot would be much stronger if JB had made it ambiguous, provided some explanation for the false arrest, some understanding of why the police would grab the wrong guy - this guy, in particular - and frame him. This may be something BJ will work on in his adaptation - building the tension and the doubt. I would say JB has dropped a major hint as to how Fonny will be exonerated; I won't divulge this now but will see if my hunch proves correct.