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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, June 22, 2017

A French-language writer - Gauz - who will be worth reading when his novel comes out in English

It's surprising, halfway through Best European Fiction 2017, how few of these stories and selections from novels have anything explicitly to say about the changes, struggles, and crises in Europe today; most of these pieces could just as well have been written by an American writer - although perhaps they're a little more experimental in form than most contemporary American work, which may be typical of European fiction or may just represent the taste of the editors. One exception, and perhaps the most interesting piece in the first half of the anthology, is by the French-language writer Gauz, living in Paris and a native of the Ivory Coast, an excerpt from his novel Stand-by-the-Hour. The piece begins with a description of a job fair at which a recruitment firm is hiring a vast # of men to work as store security; all of the applicants are French-speaking of African descent - and Gauz has some striking passages in which he ticks off the cultural differences - in clothing, in style - that mark one African nationality from another. This passage gives us a sense of the struggles of the African immigrants (or sons of immigrants) and helps us see a segment of the capitalist system generally hidden from view: who are these men who take these dreary jobs of literally standing by the hour, paying watch and keeping the peace simply through their slightly threatening presence? Then we take a step aside w/ two of the men who are living in one of those Parisian shared apartments - they clear out during the day and leave the room to workers on the night shift; Gauz gives us the sense of the despair of their lives and the need to stay out of trouble - and they seem headed for trouble as they befriend a seriously drunk white woman and literally carry her back to their apartment where they hope she'll sleep it off and sober up. This seems like a novel worth reading, if and when it appears in English. Another piece of note is the Hungarian writer Zsuzsa Selyem's story Confectionary 1952, which describes a police interrogation of those suspected of anti-Soviet activism; strangely, the story seems to be narrated by some kind of insect or animal that thrives off the blood of the prisoners - a mosquito, maybe? Very unusual perspective; but why focus on the politics of that long-ago era? I really expected more in this anthology about multicultural tensions, the immigration crises, terrorism, Brexit - life today in Europe.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A glimpse at contemporary European fiction - experiments in form and adherence to tradition

Am reading through or at least around in Best European Fiction 2017(Dalkey Archive Press), and breaking w/ usual practice I have a copy next to so that I can recall the names of some of the authors; book is structured as one short story or novel excerpt per European country/language group (e.g., there Spain Basque and Castillian). I had literally never heard of any of the authors, which says something either about me, about cntemporary European fiction, or about the editors of this collection (the preface is by Eileen Battersby). The first several stories in the collection were not promising; we know that European writers have long been interested in experiments in form and style, heavily influenced by French New Wave cinema and structuralist and post-structuralist (and many other "ists" I think) literary criticism. The first several stories in this collection involve shifts in narrative POV, broken chronology, and various other devices and, you know what?, this is no longer avant garde or cutting edge. Broken narrative is by now a cliche, and an off-putting one at that. Moreover, the first few stories focus on the adolescent angst of writers or hip artists. Ugh - this topic is suddenly coming up all over the place (see 2 most recent NYer stories), and I think it speaks to the proliferation of writing programs - too many people writing too much when they don't have enough experience of the world to write about anything but themselves. One of these stories, though, The Two Writers, by Stephane Lambert, does make a terrific observation that I think makes it worth reading: Lost opportunities in life are the starting places for writers. That's a really smart observation - absolutely true, writers can and do use these missed opportunities to explore through art the lives they could have or almost led. Two more conventional stories in the collection, one by Czech writer Jiri Harjicek, about a soccer coach who faces a crisis when one of his players may have had unprotected sex with a young girl, and Ida Jessen, of Denmark, give hope that the entire volume won't be an experiment in form. Harjisek's story is like a well-made play - very convention, perfect in form, beginning, middle, and end, could have been written, mutatis mutandis, 50 years ago. Jessen's (Postcard to Annie) is especially moving, as a middle-aged woman reflects on a turning point in her life based on one tragic incident that she witnessed in her youth - I wonder if this story of achieved opportunity is her version of working out a missed opportunity from her own life? - and then, in the present, reflecting back on the course of her life; it's a story broad in scope and deep in feeling.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Worth reading to the conclusion of The North Water

Final word on Ian McGuire's 2016 novel, The North Water: Clearly not a novel for all readers, but if you can work your way through the first chapters and steel yourself for a series of gruesome scenes involving brutal fights, sodomy, butchering of animals, consumption of raw seal blood and organs, freezing Arctic conditions, crude language to the extreme, mistreatment and denigration of women, primitive medical treatments including an appendectomy performed the field - well, you get the drift - it's really a gripping story told in high style. McGuire builds to a dramatic and startling violent conclusion, and then ends with a chapter that's surprisingly pacific, involving redemption and sorrow - I won't give any of that away, but if you find yourself at all captivated by the narrative it's worth pursuing to the end. As noted her and in previous posts, McGuire is a really talented writer, with a vast working vocabulary and a smart sense about 19th-century arcana, in particular whaling, medical practices, and the Arctic populations. But he wears his research lightly and never - well, rarely - seems to be showing off to earn special props. I have no idea what McGuire may be working on now, but hope he'll go easier on the gore and profanity that will inevitably put off many of his potential readers.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The spiritual aspect of The North Water

Ian McGuire's The North Water does have me "hooked," and I'm just nearing the conclusion. It's not a book for everyone; it's at times crude, cruel, and gruesome, and all of the major characters - the men aboard a whaling ship - are corrupt and immoral in all sorts of ways. But: McGuire writes as well as anyone, he knows how to build tension and hold reader attention, he keeps the plot short and taut, so if you're not turned off by the atrocities of the first few chapters you're probably, like me, along for the whole trip. The book is a strange mix of an abundance of talent, of scrupulous research, and arcane vocabulary - and at the end a great sailing-adventure tale, as the men aboard the Volunteer face one catastrophe after another. I've commented in earlier posts about the inevitable comparisons with Moby-Dick, and there's one element to add to that: toward the end of the novel discussions about religion and morality rise to the fore, as the ship's surgeon, Sumner, nearly freezes to death and is resuscitated by a sole British missionary, who talks to him about the grace of god - and whom Sumner crudely, and rudely, rebuffs. (Earlier in the novel Sumner had conversations with one of the whaling men, Otto, who is a Swedenborgian and believes man's fate is in the hands of a benevolent if elusive god.) So the world of the sailing vessel, which seems so isolated and forlorn (and fallen) is also part of a vast universe - a speck in that universe - and at least some of the men try to comprehend the conflict between man's will (and evil nature) and the benevolent, yet absent, god. Melville wrestled with these issues as well - as about a million doctoral dissertations can attest.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The North Water as Moby-Dick in reverse

The North Water is something like a whodunnit in reverse; the "mystery" is the sodomy attack on one of the cabin boys on the whaling ship and the subsequent murder of the cabin boy, which sets off an investigation by the captain and the ship's surgeon. In this novel, however, we know more than any of the characters - and in particular we know who attacked the cabin boy, as we'd met the crew member Drax in the 1st chapter, in which he got drunk, beat the crap out of an innocent man, and raped a teenage boy. So we know he's the one who attacked the boy on this ship - and we watch as gradually. thanks to the perspicacious surgeon, Sumner, the truth comes out and Drax gets chained in the hold. But, hey, we're only about half-way done with the novel; what else will happen? As noted in previous posts, this is a novel as dark as they come (at one point I misremembered the title as The Dark Water), and we begin to see that there's another nefarious scheme afoot; the captain has plotted to sink the ship - but slowly enough so that the valuable whale oil can be offloaded to a sister ship - in order to claim the insurance. Obviously, that's not going to work out so well, in the ice-choked waters off Greenland. There is no character in this novel who's benevolent, honest, or even likable - Sumner comes the closest, as he seems to be trying to redeem himself, but Ian McGuire does fill us in on his back story, his discharge from the British army because of his scheme to extort valuables from a man seeking help for his wounded son in an army hospital, a stupid action that leads to the death of several British soldiers (aside from its obvious violation of medical ethics). Though all whaling stories live under the shadow of Moby-Dick, this novel is Moby-Dick in reverse (as well as whodunnit in reverse): the ship is star-crossed not because the the captain's obsessions but because everyone aboard appears to be a ruined soul - a voyage of the damned.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The North Water: Could this really be McGuire's view?

Ian McGuire's story-telling ability is keeping me going with his novel The North Water, meaning I do, at least for now, want to know what's happening aboard the whaleboat the Volunteer en route to Greenland: the ship doctor, the central character though hardly the moral focus (we learn his back story in a grotesque chapter about his service in a hospital in India working on the grievously wounded soldiers - and about an abominable scheme he engages in to extort money from an Indian man seeking help for his wounded child) examines a cabin boy and finds that he's been sodomized. The boy won't divulge who attacked him, and at a later point the crew finds the boy's body stuffed in ballast barrel. So you can't not want to know who dunnit - but finding out will involved more episodes in this completely morally corrupt world - in which just about every character introduced is a horrible, cruel, selfish being, and in which every scene reeks w/ the stench of feces, vomit, dead creatures. I'm left pretty much where I was yesterday: There's something compelling about this story and there's no question that McGuire is a powerful writer and an avid researcher and historian, but this novel verges on the sensational and again I wonder why such a talented writer would create this world. Could this really represents McGuire's world view? If so, I pity him.

Friday, June 16, 2017

An extremely talented writer who's created an extremely unpleasant world

Obviously any novel about a seafaring adventure aboard a 19th-century whaling ship is going to have to live under the shadow of Moby-Dick. Also obviously, Ian McGuire, author of the 2016 novel The North Water (and an English=born professor of American lit.) knows this. His novel even opens w/ a 3-word sentence: Behold the man! But unlike the mysterious, observant Ishmael narrator, McGuire opts for an omniscient 3rd-person narrator - which allows him to introduce a lot of characters and plot elements pretty quickly: The ship captain is trying to regain his reputation after some kind of disastrous shipwreck, the mission to Greenland has a goal other than whale oil though only the captain and ship owner are in on this, the boat is dangerously understocked, the crew is volatile, and the ship's doctor, probably emerging as the central character, is a opiate addict and tells an phony story about why he wants to go to sea - he has some secret in his past (previous service was w/ British army in India), like most who go to sea no doubt. What brought this novel to my attention were a # of glowing reviews and subsequent comments by many writers about the McGuire's beautiful and engaging writing. No question, he is terrific at creating a sense of time and place - in this case the seaport of Hull in the 1860s - with exquisite and excruciating detail about the stench, the hubbub, the and the technical details of preparing and launching a whaling voyage. His is a counterpoint to Melville's somewhat romantic view of whaling and of the men aboard the Pequot; Melville's opening, in New Bedford, is by comparison a scene of comradeship, diversity, and faith - an optimistic opening to a voyage that will become increasingly bizarre and troubled - because of Captain Ahab's obsession of course (not because of the crew). In McGuire's world, everything and everyone is corrupt and evil-natured. In the opening chapter we meet a crew member who becomes drunk, belligerent, and destitute, attacks an innocent man with a brick, steals his money, befriends an impoverished black teenager, then rapes him - shall I go on? The world of this novel is not just dark, it's sordid; I will read further to see how things develop but I have to wonder why a writer with such obvious talent as McGuire - his prose is vivid, though at times willfully obscure and punched up w/ nautical terms (mizzenmast, taffrail) and possible neologisms (chuntled?) that seem a little bit of a show-off - would want to devote himself to such a unrelentingly nasty set of characters. All writers love their characters, usually, but how can anyone love these guys - or even care about them?