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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

Monday, May 31, 2010

One of our best observers and chroniclers of our culture: Franzen

Jonathan Franzen has a really good story in the current New Yorker, "Agreeable," about a jockish girl in a wealthy Westchester family where her talents are not only not appreciated but gently ridiculed by both of her parents, who are much more focused on the academically high-achieving, artistic siblings and on their own left-liberal political ambitions (or pretensions). The family is insufferable, and at first I found the story kind of a stretch, as it was hard to believe that the star athlete wouldn't get her share or more of attention and the casual cruelty of the father toward his daughter seemed beyond comprehension, but gradually I accepted the family as the aberrant, or may not-so-aberrant, monstrosity that it is - and then the story kicks into a higher gear when the daughter gets raped by a casual acquaintance, from another socially prominent, politically liberal family, at a summer pool party. Of course her parents have no idea anything's happened, only the basketball coach is aware; parents come in to the "rescue" but of course counsel daughter to just drop it, why ruin the young man's life, why pick a fight with his family, etc. Totally chilling and amazing story by the end, a kick to the gut. Franzen, for all the criticism he's gotten because of his high ambitions and his snubbing of Queen Oprah, continues to be one of our best writers in the realist mode, not just a writer but an observer and chronicler of our culture. I wish he'd get off the poor-little-rich-girl kick, but aside from that I look forward to reading his next work.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Where's Bolano going with M. Pain? Anyone's guess.

The strangeness of the events in "Monsieur Pain" continues to unfold, as the eponymous Pain visits Vallejo in his hospital room (though he has taken a 2k franc bribe to leave the patient alone to die), finds Vallejo asleep accompanied by his wife and by Madame Reynaud (Pain's friend). The hiccups are strange in themselves - why this malady? I think it may be historically accurate, not sure. But they become a surreal presence, more real than the dying poet. Pain says he's sure he can help Vallejo, but we're not sure how that can be. He leaves, concerned about the two spanish "doctors" who paid him the bribe, he takes a cab home, and checks to see if he's been followed. He hasn't. Goes into his building, finds a fellow tenant who is very drunk and leads her back to her room, and then he embarks on a night journey of no clear import, for the novel, except to introduce several more felliniesque or kafkaesque scenes: meeting two artists (brothers) whose expertise is designing underwater cemeteries for aquariums, coming across a group of people headed to a costume ball, and feeling he's being watched by others watching the revelers. Where is Bolano going with this novel? Is he sure? I'm not. I would lose faith, except for his excellent reputation, the fine writing, and the manageable length - it's really only a novella, so by the time I'm finished I will be able, I think, to recall all the elements and see if they cohere into a meaningful narrative. Too bad Vallejo's dying - I'd like more about him.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Does the author see the whole story or make it up as he goes along?

Thanks to extremely demanding week at work this blog should be called Elliot's Not Reading, but did read last night a few more pages of Roberto Bolano's "Monsieur Pain," and continue to find it strange and impenetrable and therefore typically Bolano and very readable but who knows if the payoff will be there in the end? Some of his better works, in homage to other great Latin American writers, are labyrinthine and mysterious, but the weaker ones (they are few) seem more improvisational. In a great mysterious story or novel you must have the sense that the author has seen it whole and is in complete control throughout, that you're in the hands of a good pilot who will bring you in safely. In a weaker novel (same holds true for movies) you sense that the author doesn't really know where he/she is heading, the author is feeling his/her way along the route, and you might be taking a long journey to nowhere. Bolano is occasionally the victim of this - a prolific, imaginative author who seems sometimes to be literally writing for his life, he was not the type, I imagine, to abandon anything he started. He was one of the rare breeds of professional writers, living "by the pen" alone. The mystery deepens in M. Pain as we learn that the title character, an acupunturist, is now being paid, or actually bribed, to not treat a patient, the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo. Totally unclear (to him and us) why the two Spanish strangers would pay him to let Vallejo alone to die. More will unfold, no doubt, but will we get answers or just more puzzles?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Strange, exotic, paranoid - Roberto Bolano's world

"Monsieur Pain" starts off like so many Roberto Bolano stories, strange, exotic, somewhat paranoid, among a world of expatriate artists and writers, as the eponymous M. Pain, who is of all things an acupuncturist practicing in Paris in 1938, is approached by a widowed acquaintance who wants him to help the dying husband of a friend of her; the husband, dying of a case of the hiccups in some Parisian sanatorium, turns out to be Cesar Vallejo, the great Chilean (I think) poet of the 20th-century. For some unexplained reason, there also appears to be a team of Spanish-speaking agents - police? something else? - who are following M. Pain, and he has no idea why. That's the set-up. A very short novel, and if the author's note is to be believed (you never know with Bolano), as well as the story in his most recent (posthumous) collection is also accurate, this novella won him some kind of cash award in Toledo (Spain) - there seem to be a lot of these publicly sponsored writing awards in Spain, unless Bolano is having us on? I always love the world that Bolano creates - sometimes he doesn't know quite where to go when he establishes his premise, but in other stories or novelas (he's weaker in the longer novels I think) he's truly among the greats. My interest in this one is also sparked by my interest in Vallejo. I don't know too much about him, but have always enjoyed coming across his poems here and there, and I remember a reading many years ago at which Robert Bly read his translation of a great Vallejo poem: What if after all these words the word itself is unable to survive? Took me a long time to find a copy of the translation - my memory had smoothed some of the infelicities and made it better, as it turns out. Great poem.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Flannery O'Connor's (supposed) outsider status gives her street cred

Every (serious) writing class I've been in has had someone like Flannery O'Connor in the group. There's usually been a bunch of self-counsciously artistic/creative types who look both aware and deep and whom you immediately pick out as the players, the competition, the ones who are miles down the road toward the the great American novel or epic poem, but there's always at least one, sitting on the margins, quiet, withdrawn, maybe a bit frumpy (if a woman) or disheveled (if a guy), often a bit younger (or older) than the rest, easy to dismiss, and then, wham!, they present their work and blow you away: knockout poem that's going to stay with you for 50 years, or a story so funny that the writer himself can hardly read it aloud to the seminar without laughing to tears. That's how I imagine O'Connor was at Iowa and after. You'd think, what's she doing here? Has she wandered over from the ag college? And then her stories, the chapters of her novel - truly unlike anything before or since, and that's part of their power. Could a Fitzgerald or a Lowell or a Bellow or a Doctorow write about her characters and get away with it? Obviously not. O'Connor's supposed "outsider" status (well cultivated, she was much more inside than most suppose) gives her a certain cred, so that when we read about the grotesques in "Wise Blood" and elsewhere we accept them, figuring she knew her turf. Yes, I believe she did. As a portrait of a knot of southern eccentrics, Wise Blood is amazing, but what about as a religous and philosophical tome? The characters are not symbols, nor should they be nor are the meant to be. But in what sense are they going through a spiritual struggle and crisis? Isn't more like their little bugs on a glass jar, into which O'Connor drops a match to watch them squirm? She's a great author but a cruel god.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I am in awe of Flannery O'Connor's faith in her own work

Got a kick out of reading some of the Flannery O'Connor letters re "Wise Blood" in the Library of America O'Connor edition. Unsurprisingly, she's a really funny and sharp-witted correspondent, who uses her mother as a comic foil (She: You would read a book called The Idiot. What's it about? Me: An idiot). Letter writing, a great lost art. A few striking things: First, O'Connor writes to several correspondents that Wise Blood is a novel about redemption in various guises, though not Catholic redemption (her faith). Again, I'm so struck by this - would readers perceive or comprehend this without O'Connor's guidance? Does it really feel as if Hazel has been redeemed by his suffering? As in everything, O'Connor's vision is unique and perverse, and I think it's fair to say that no other writer in the world who set forth to write a tale of Christian redemption would come up with anything like this one - in which the characters, to me at least, seem unremittingly lost and sinful and obsessed. Second: these letters again remind us that the image of O'Connor as a bumpkin or idiot savant, living down there in Georgia and out of touch with the world, are completely false. Easy to underestimate her. She was in regular contact with a lot of literary figures (lowell, robert fitzgerald), was a star at the Iowa Writers Workshop whose work was recognized early (though oddly one of her mentors insisted on reading her stories to the seminars himself, afraid others couldn't plumb her Georgia accent - what an egotist!). Finally: I am in awe of the faith O'Connor had in her own work, confidently blowing off a publisher (Rinehart) who wanted her to change the manuscript. She knew from the start that her novel was unconventional and she never wavered in that belief nor in her belief in her own vision and talent, uniquely hers - and of course history has shown her to be right.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What did Flannery O'Connor think of her grotesque characters?

You have to think that most writers love their characters, despite or even because of their quirks and foibles. You have to wonder what Flannery O'Connor thought of her characters. Did she love them - in the way (her) god loves his? Did she pity them? Find them amusing? Or just grotesque? Because they really are grotesque in the peculiarly Southern-gothic manner, though far more extreme than those of the other greats, Faulkner, Welty, in particular. I get a sense that she was godlike, standing back and looking down on her creations, amused and filled with pity: Enoch, in "Wise Blood," stealing from the zoo/museum a mummified Pygmy in the belief that it can become the new Jesus. Enoch speaking, in the saddest scene in the book, to the man in the Gorilla suit, perhaps actually believing he's talking to a gorilla!, finally getting someone to listen to his tale of loneliness - and the gorilla man, some drunk who wants to get out of the rain, tells him to go to hell. Hazel Motes, the main character, heading for another city to preach the Church without Christ from the "nose" of his car, in front of movie theaters. These people are entirely bizarre, even mentally deranged. Why does she write about them? What's her point? Perhaps she is trying to convey some sense that even the least among us is struggling for redemption and can be saved. Or perhaps not - there is a cruelty in her writing that lies (not far) beneath the humor. Her extremely deft phrasing in every sentence - Enoch wearing a costume disguise of with a beard pinned to his hat that a "keen observer" might recognize as a fake (I laughed out loud) - separate her from her characters, the wisest, the true observer, the one above it all.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Is there nobody in a Flannery O'Connor story but the gargoyles?

In earlier posts I noted that, if you knew nothing about her, you'd be surprised to learn that Christian salvation is the "theme" of many Flannery O'Connor stories and (her 2) novels. In "Wise Blood," however, it's obvious that Christianity, redemption, sin, and, salvation is her theme -- all of the characters are imbued with a fervent religiosity. It's as if the world consists of nobody but sidewalk preachers and their prey. (Maybe in some parts of the South in the 40s that was so.) What's harder to get my mind around, though, is that O'Connor is a self-professed Christian. From the evidence here, it would seem that she could just as easily by an atheist and a cynic. Clearly, her main character, Hazel Motes, who spends his nights on the sidewalks preaching abut the Church Without Christ, is disturbed and reckless. We have no idea why he has taken on this mission, why he has set himself up against the world. Does O'Connor mock and hate him? He's a grotesque and an object of ridicule or bitter humor, O'Connor's and ours. If she can show that even he can be redeemed, then, yes, this is a novel of salvation and faith. But what about the world he is in? O'Connor seems to see all self-professed preachers and madmen (Enoch) or charlatans (Hawks and his lscivious daughter, Sabbath, and others). Are there no good people? Is there nobody in an O'Connor story but the Gargoyles? Herr vision is unique and wry and at times hugely entertaining, but it's a great challenge to read about these grotesques and to feel or believe that she has, or that her God has, any love for them.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Who are these strange people in Wise Blood?

Who are these strange people in "Wise Blood"? In most novels, you get to know the characters over the course of the narrative so that what seemed strange and incomprehensible early on gradual takes on a clarity and a comprehensiveness - we know the whole character, not just a fragment. Flannery O'Connor, in so many ways, is different and unconventional. Her characters in Wise Blood - Hazel Motes, Enoch, the blind preacher and his daughter - become even stranger and in a way less comprehensible as the story proceeds. We learn facts about them along the way - the blind preacher, surprise!, is fake, he'd planned to blind himself as a testament to Christ but he lost his nerve and since then has pretended to be blind - but we don't exactly know what drives them. hazel in particular: what is it that makes him travel around the city announcing that he preaches for the Church without Christ? What drives him or possesses him? The preacher and his daughter are more obvious - they're scam artists, as out of some 30s screwball movie (e.g., The Lady Eve), but less comic. Why they'd set their sites on an obvious loser like Hazel is the puzzle. Maybe the looks wealthy to them? Enoch is just needy and lonely. As noted in previous posts, something is building or proceeding on the allegorical/symbolic level, but it's like trying to see the shoreline through a haze - something's there, but the outlines and dimensions are not yet clear. Even when or if it does become clear, I'd expect that this novel is not designed like a Swiss watch - it's more of a loose structure, peripatetic within a small scope.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A novel far deeper than it seems (at first) : Wise Blood

I mentioned Flannery O'Connor's strangely entitled story The Artificial Nigger in yesterday's post, and now I see that the structure of that excellent story, or at least the central principle, is also a strong element in her novel "Wise Blood" - an innocent (Hazel Motes) wanders a city, basically get lost and in trouble, and (in Wise Blood) is befriended by a younger man who latches onto him and wants to, needs to show him something, a discovery he's made, that is to him inexplicable and strange. In Artificial it's the statue of a black lawn jockey. In Wise Blood is the shrunken body (perhaps a Pygmy?) encased in glass as part of an exhibit at the city zoo. I have no idea what this means, signifies, other than that O'Connor characters often confront the strangeness and grotesquery of the world and don't know what to make of it. Motes, or Haze, carries an aura of religion that's a little too powerful for his own good - his hanger-on, Enoch, believes Motes to be a preacher or a very rich man, and they are in fact linked by the blind preacher whom they both encountered on the street, that's what brought them together, and Motes stays in touch with Enoch because he thinks (incorrectly?) that Enoch can lead him to the preacher's daughter. On the surface, this is picaresque novel but on a very small scale, confined to a small patch of space - but there seem to be depths and issues and suggestions of meaning that go far beyond the scope of the story and that it will be important to examine and reveal.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Imagine you knew nothing about Flannery O'Connor

If you didn't read the author's note and if you hadn't read any of the criticism including her own and if you didn't know anything about her - would you have known that Flannery O'Connor was a self-professed Christian writer? I doubt it. If you just came across A Good Man is Hard to Find or The Artificial Nigger or almost any of her great stories in an anthology or magazine you wouldn't say: oh, a Christian allegory, a story about a man (or woman) wrestling with issues of faith - except that she tells you in her prefaces and letters and lectures that this is what she's writing about, this is what she is about, this struggle to find god in a fallen world is what makes her a writer. Who'd have guessed? Yet "Wise Blood" may be the exception - one of her earlier works, one of (I think) only two novels, and her reputation really does rest on the short stories. Yet these novels, this novel, has many of the strengths of the stories - the humor, the totally quirky phrasing and observations, the exploration of life in a small southern town ca 1940, like turning over a rock and watching the bugs squiggle and squirm. And this one is, from the early chapters at least, more obviously imbued with religious symbolism and with issues of faith and doubt than her stories are - they're maybe better because they keep the allegorical theme more deeply disguised. Here Hazel Mate (?), the 22ish protagonist, back from the Army (1949), heading to a city (fictional name, probably Atlanta), professes doubt and disbelief, but Christian themes pursue him, from childhood (his grandfather an intinerant preacher) to many memories of witnessing burial and his fear of burial - his railroad journey that begins the novel almost like a death and resurrection. Not sure what the "story" of the novel is yet, but hoping the symbolism will thin out as the plot engages in gear.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Why Every Man Dies Alone is such a dark, bleak novel

It was interesting and heartening to read the afterword to "Every Man Dies Alone" and see that the professor who wrote it had many of the same observations as I had: The heroes are not exactly heroic or noble, the resistance is totally ineffective, the Nazi regime ultimately topples because of outside assault not inside resistance. This observation is not meant to belittle the characters in this novel or make light of their bravery - very few stood up to Hitler in any way, and few stand up to tyrants in any society. But you have to notice that the Quangels take action only because their son is killed in battle - they don't rise up against the regime until it hurts them personally (much like so many right-wing Republicans who take up the one single progressive cause that affects their family: gay rights/Cheney, gun control/Brady, stem cells/Reagan, e.g.). In that sense this book, though about resistance, is incredibly bleak and dark. Also interesting to read about Fallada's life - he killed a friend when he was a teenager, in and out of mental hospitals, various addictions, occasional complicity with the Nazis - and through it all a highly productive writer, and he wrote this (500+page) book in less than two months, and knew it was great! What a gift to have such fluency, and what a tragic, short life. Also interesting to read about and see reprints of the documents about the actual couple who distributed past cards attacking Hitler throughout Berlin for years - and having no effect. Interesting as well to note how Fallada changed the details of the story - inspiring the action by the death of a son (not a brother), making them more literate and intelligent, and most of all connecting them to the young revolutionary couple who also pay with their lives.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It could happen anywhere, even here: Every Man Dies Alone

"Every Man Dies Alone" is a knockout right to the end, as it concludes with the Quangels' last days in prison and the death of Trudel and her husband, each death sadder, stranger, more tragic than the next - and all of them, in a sense, belying the title of the book. Men (and women) who commit themselves to a cause never die alone - they die with their comrades in spirit. You will never forget the description of the last moments of Otto Quangel's life, as he awaits the drop of the guillotine. The court scene is great and unprecedented, with the horrific Nazi judge just using the occasion to spout venom, humiliate, and dominate. I am assuming that this novel is based on Fallada's close observations of the Nazi judicial system, such as it was - it's truly amazing that the whole Nazi system could exist and incredibly sad how puny and ineffective the resistance inside Germany was - everyone though they could make it through if they quietly went along. It may be so within all tyrranical societies, but there's a particular horror about Nazi Germany - so many of us know or have relatives who just managed to escape, or who didn't - and a fear that if it could happen in a long-established "civilization" such as Germany, it could happen anywhere, even here. And I read the Tea Party chatter and hear the Rush Limbaugh venom and read about the antiimmigrant furor in Arizona and think, yeah, it could, and what would I do about it? Would I stand up? How much would I risk? Most of the people in this novel risk little or nothing, and those who put their lives on the line pay the full price - and effect no changes. A depressing book in that way - but incredibly powerful testament.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Can we agree that not all Holocaust stories are therefore good?

Shall we all agree that the Holocaust was bad? Shall we also agree that not every story about the Holocaust is therefore good? There have been hundreds, probably thousands of Holocaust novels and stories (and memoirs), some of which are the richest, most powerful, most disturbing documents in modern literature. And there will no doubt always be new ways for writers, even 2 generations removed, to try to confront this horrifying event and to make sense of it through art. But what are we to make of Nathan Englander's story in the current New Yorker, Free Fruit for War-Widows? Good idea, to see the Holocaust through the lens of an Israeli soldier, and the moral issues he confronts as he now finds himself in the role of killer, even executor. Too bad Englander so weirdly mishandles this material. In essence, he story begins with an episode in which an Israeli soldier (in the 50s?) shoots dead 4 Egyptian soldiers (it's not clear if these men represented a threat or not) and then beats the crap out of a fellow Israeli who questioned him on this. Jump to the present, at which the soldier beaten up reveres the attacker and tells his son a long and improbable story about how the attacker survived the camps, came home, found a German family well established in his family farm, learns they want to kill him, so he shoots them in their beds, and leaves for Israel. Huh? I'm sure we're not to see this as morally uplifting or as an excuse for a later maniacal behavior - or are we? Is this merely meant to be provocative, to pose the question about justified killings? What on earth is justified about any of these killings? We never in the least understand why the guy beaten up, now a sage old fruit vendor, would revere the sadistic soldier. I don't know - this story dresses in the trappings of serious literature, but it's all a get-up.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The most amazing thing is that he survived to write: Hans Fallada

And then a strange thing happens in "Every Man Dies Alone," as Otto Quangel is transferred from the horrendous Gestapo prison basement to a "remand" prison, which seems to be a place where prisoners are held pending execution - it's not clear - but is a much cleaner and more comfortable holding cell, and he gets a new cellmate, an orchestra conductor, who talks to him kindly about music, teaches him to play chess, and most important talks to him about humanity and ethics and justice, all in a very low-key way - Quangel becomes a human, and not an automaton, in prison, and all this makes sense, in a society gone mad the prison is a sanctuary, the refuge of the morally upright. Reminds me - and it's been a million ears since I rad it - of the end of The Stranger, which as I recall ends with a sense of freedom and liberation achieved in prison. Of course this isn't quite the end of Every Man Dies Alone, and more horrible things can happen and probably will, and it's not clear what kind of salvation can be worthwhile for one who's executed by a racist tyrant and his henchmen - it's the society that needs salvation, not the imprisoned. Clearly a sense in these last chapters that Fallada is writing out of his own experience - what he must have seen in a Nazi mental institution must defy belief, and can you blame him for an addiction to morphine? The most amazing thing of all is that he survived, if not for long, to write this book and provide testimony to what he witnessed.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The saddest moment in this harrowing book : Every Man Dies Alone

"Every Man Dies Alone" is an incredibly powerful book, and I realize yesterday's post may have been short-sighted, there's no reason to criticize a book for what it isn't, and this novel isn't about the Jewish victims of the Holocaust - and there has been a lot written on that subject of course, tho never enough - this novel is about the victims of tyranny and oppression. It's about a citizenry living in fear - in this case wartime Berlin, but you could write the same or a similar novel about North Korea, Baghdad, Uganda, you name it - the fear and the sense that everyone's a spy and that the slightest word against the government could mean your life - that's universal, and Hans Fallada captures the sensation perfectly. It's easy to describe this novel as "Kafakaesque," but that doesn't do it justice because it's not dreamy and surreal but documentary and matter-of-fact in its tone. Part of its terror lies in knowing this, that the writers experienced this culture and survived. Part is knowing how craven the entire country was - germans just going along, not gighting back, not feeling terribly bad about the Jews, at least someone else was bearing the brunt of the suffering. Part of the terror is seeing how stupid the Gestapo is - taking two years to find a minor criminal, an old man distributing anti-Fuhrer post cards. Their very inefficiency makes them more frightening, as they're perfectly willing to arrest the innocent, just to boost the statistics and satisfy the higher-ups. The Gestapo are bullies in the purest sense, ganging up to beat the hell out of a prisoner, kicking people who are down. The whole novel follows the postcard guy, and perhaps the saddest moment in the book is when he's caught and learns that his cards have had absolutely no effect - virtually all were turned over to the police. What a harrowing moment.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Berlin without Jews : Every Man Dies Alone

The luck of the Quangels begins to run out as, after 2 years of surreptitiously distributing post cards attacking the Fuhrer, a spy finally spots them making a drop and a police officer brings them into the station for questioning - and then, they're saved by the complete incompetence of the Gestapo, as the new inspector on the case (Zott) lets them go because he's convinced that the Hobgoblin (the one dropping the cards) must be someone who lives alone and works for the transit system, not a married carpenter. The incompetence of the Gestapo just adds further to the sense that this is a society in turmoil - it's almost worse than a bloodlessly efficient secret police, because of its very arbitrariness. Still trying to figure out how to take and comprehens Fallada's vision of society in "Every Man Dies Alone" - it's definitely a grim portrait of wartime Berlin but in an odd way a bit of a defense of the German people - most are not as horrible as they've been depicted and imagined. Still, there's a whitewashing of the Jewish issue after part 1 of the novel - the Germans from time to time express a fear of being taken to one of the conentration camps, but they have almost nothing to say about Jews (though the first part of the book is about an attack on a Jewish widow) - is that part of the point? They are willfully blind to the plight of any but themselves? The Jews have been erased from the book, just as they are erased from Nazi Germany?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Was there really such a thing as German resistance to Nazism?

Part 3 of Hans Fallada's great "Every Man Dies Alone" begins with a more explicit statement than elsewhere in the novel about life in Germany in 1940-42 - nobody's safe, everyone's spying on everyone else. The young newly married couple, Trudel and (?), move to the outskirts of Berlin, hoping to live a more private life there and put behind them their activist/socialist past, but it isn't to be - they're under even greater scrutiny in a small town. Trudel goes into Berlin for some shopping and, pure chance, spots the father of her former fiance (who died in the war), Otto Quangel - she catches him in the act of distributing his anonymous anti-Fuhrer post cards, which is more than the Gestapo has been able to do in two years. He warns her never to speak of him, even to her husband - he's cold, and obviously a damaged and disturbed man. Menwhile her husband comes across an old comrade who berates him for trying to be apolitical. Somewhat shamed, he agrees to hold a suitcase, which he stashes in the train station luggage room. Something will happen there for sure. He keeps this secret from Trudel. So what we have set up is a very odd picture of society. We imagine - is it true? - that the German citizens blithely went along with Nazi terrorism, either actively supporting it or willfully ignorant and indifferent. This novel suggests otherwise - that there was quite an active, if ineffective, resistance. It also implies that very few Germans actively supported the regime - hard to believe, really. But it's not an apologia for Germany - in a way, it makes the horrors even worse - an entire civilization living in fear and terror of a tiny but brutal leadership. But why couldn't all of these Germans have done something to stop Nazism? It's a strange book - the Jews hardly mentioned - and I wonder how accurate, and how much the product of one fervid imagination.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A novel with a thin surface and vast depths : Mrs. Bridge

It's amazing that Evan S. Connell's "Mrs. Bridge" seems on the surface like such a placid novel but then when you're finished and you think about some of the incidents it contains you realize that it's a very violent, almost traumatic book: a double murder, an armed robbery, a suicide, a tornado, two (at least) incidents of domestic violence. In the background, there's the onset of World War II, fears about the Holocaust, the racial tensions in the city - but this stays in the background. Mrs. Bridge tries to make the best of everything; she expects manners and social conventions to see her through. She questions nothing. She cannot spot, or is unwilling to recognize, fraud, foolishness (her minister), and injustice. She will do almost anything to avoid conflict. And yet: there is incredible anguish in her soul and in her world, which she touches on from time to time and which is revealed to us in occasional flashes. Only a thin line separates Mrs. Bridge with her calm demeanor from her friend (Grace?) who feels empty, who sees no future, who takes her life (though no one will talk about this). This is a novel with thin surface and vast, frightening depths. It would be so easy to dismiss Mrs. Bridge, and in some ways she is pathetic, her life just passing by her, by the end her husband gone and her children are strangers, but in other ways she is rich, perceptive, and of course a victim. Her husband is a cipher, but he has his own novel, which presumably finds depths of anguish and despair that Connell barely hints at in this one.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

One of the saddest books you'll ever read: Mrs. Bridge

Re-reading the amazing "Mrs. Bridge" for book group. I know that when I posted about Mrs. Bridge a few months ago I compared it with the other great Mrs. novel, i.e. Dalloway, and the comparison still holds, but there are nuances more apparent in 2nd go-through. Mrs. Bridge (like Mrs. D.) is, on the surface, almost a painfully conventional woman. She willingly defers to her husband's will and judgment in all things, she tries to smooth over anything and everything disagreeable, she is painfully concerned with manners and appearances. But beneath this surface she is questing and yearning for something greater, some fulfillment that seems just beyond her comprehension or just beyond her grasp. There's a moment (the whole novel is a series of moments that together encompass a whole life) in which she sits across from her husband, during a lightning storm, and he registers nothing (in the companion novel, Mr. Bridge, perhaps we learn that he, too, has a rich interior life) but she feels she has just touched the verge of comprehension. Despite her personal limitations and repressions, a number of her friends are more aggressively pushing the boundaries of what's expected of women of their class in 1930s Kansas City - a poet, an artist, a thinker, each of them miserable. We feel from Mrs. Bridge and see her life as a tragedy of lost opportunities - and yet, her wish for fulfillment is entirely personal and self-centered. She is completely obtuse to the injustices of her society and to the feelings of those not of her class (and race). Connell's Mrs. Bridge is one of the saddest books you'll ever read.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The strangeness of Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone

The end of the 2nd section (The Gestapo) of "Every Man Dies Alone" is enigmatic (or maybe it was me) and a little difficult to follow but essentially the snitch Borkhausen tracks down the suspect Enno Kluge (Gestapo inspectors are after him, suspecting he's the guy distributing post cards that malign the Fuhrer) and instead of turning him in to the Gestapo he wrests a bribe from Enno's girlfriend Hetty, then double-crosses them and calls in the Gestapo. When inspector Escherich catches up with Enno he somehow - this is the part I couldn't quite follow - taunts Enno into killing himself. So now the false suspect - everyone knew Enno was incapable of distributing these cards but they need to arrest someone - is gone and the attention will revert to the actual perpetrator, Otto Quangel, in Part 3. Part 2, exciting as it is in many ways, doesn't seem so much like the vaunted novel of German resistance - it's more of police procedural that could happen anywhere - except that beneath all the cat-and-mouse there runs a subcurrent of terror. The only reason the police are after Enno is the pressure to make an arres to look good to the superiors - Himmler et al. - who ultimately are complete thugs and terrorists. So beneath the veneer of a smoothly functioning society, even a smoothly functioning underworld of hookers and pimps and touts, lies the Nazi tyrranny. The strangeness of Fallada's novel is that it depicts a society that in some ways is quite normal and in other ways is a complete insanity - everyone's terrified, the state can and does observe and control every aspect of life and thought - and almost no one actively resists. In some ways, it shows the Germans as horrible cowards, but in other ways you understand that most people are just trying to survive and live their lives - it shows them as frighteningly ordinary, too much like us.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Depicting a society gone mad - Every Man Dies Alone

"Every Man Dies Alone" does increasingly remind me of a Pynchon novel, and not just the trope of the Gestapo mapping the city (Berlin) by places where the anti-Fuhrer post cards have turned up, similarly to the bomb strike maps of London in Gravity's Rainbow. No, it's the tone and theme, particularly in part 2 (The Gestapo), in which the inspectors have to make an arrest in the post-card case and go after someone, Enno Kluge, whom everyone knows is not the perpetrator but he's guilty of something and a convenient victim. Kluge is such a feckless sort, a useless everyman, gambler and womanizer and coward - yet somehow, as all remark, he is take in by any number of women. He steals from them, lies to them, cheats on the them, but because of his weaknesses they take pity on them. In the greatest twist, the very fact that he's pursued by the Gestapo becomes the center of his allure: How can I turn him out and into their hands, his current squeeze, Hetty, asks herself. In a way, the novel in part two moves off the theme of the German resistance and the Nazi horrors, it's more of a Kafkaesque or perhaps Orwellian story of man against the state. But whereas Kafka and Orwell are more surreal, dreamlike, dystopian, Fallada's novel is built on the foundation of a real horror - we also know he's depicting a society gone mad, in which people lived in fear - not just the Jews but everyone, spies everywhere, the SS and Gestapo brutal and cruel, and in the service of nothing.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

How many baseball stories are there? How many good ones?

D. Gilb story in the New Yorker this week, Uncle Rock, is about young boy whose single mom is obviously gorgeous and goes through a string of relationships, each guy trying in different ways to impress her by being nice and generous to her and to the young boy - story concludes with a trip to a Dodger game at which the visiting (Phillies) players kindly sign the boy's baseball and then one tries to hit on the mom (gives the boy a note to pass to her), which the boy foils (tosses the note away). That's it - could be a whole novel but is compressed into a (very) short story. Maybe it's part of a novel, however, as so many New Yorker "stories" turn out to be. It's a pretty good story - I always admire compression and economy (don't always practice it, however). Was once told a story I'd written could/should be expanded to a novel and my thought was, why? You'd probably read it and say it should be short story. I wish this one didn't fall back on the old trope of a boy's love for baseball, the obvious parallel of his looking for heroes on the field and disappointment in his father/uncle/et al. How many baseball stories are there? Millions! How many are any good? Not many. This is on the bubble, and maybe couln't truly be called a baseball story. I do have a problem with any story that has a 10-year0-old catch a home run barehanded - doesn't happen. And then just happens to see the Phillies bus and they sign the ball for him? You'd have to wait outside the park for hours, right? Reminds me of a Paul Auster essay about meeting Willie Mays outside the Polo Grounds and not being able to get an autograph because he (Auster) didn't have a pencil, from which he learned to always carry one with him - yeah, right, a writer's concoction if every I heard one. Two good baseball stories: Kinsella's about his "season" playing with the Giants (can't remember the title), and Ethan Canin's "The Accountant" - that's 3 stories that include Willie Mays!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

As scary a vision of society as you're ever likely to read

Now the cards attacking the Fuhrer are all over Berlin - 44 drops, anyway - and the Gestapo is on the case. It's taken them 6 months, no arrests. And we go inside the Gestapo hq where a superior officer is putting the squeeze on the detective - the detective says they have to be patient and meticulous, but the senior officer says they have to make an arrest, that's an order - he's worried about the higher ups, as is everyone. The entire society is a horror show, operating entirely on the basis of fear. It's much easier to go along and not challenge anything and hope that you'll never be noticed. So far, the Quangels have avoided detection - and almost all of their cards are turned into the authorities. We see - following the first man to find one of the cards - that they're like poison, nobody wants to touch them for fear they'll be implicated. First one found by an actor who played along with Goebels, but is now "black listed." He's afraid the card might ruin him. Later, we see the Gestap about to make an arrest - someone we know is the wrong guy because we've already crossed paths with him, Enno, the guy who broke into Frau Rosenthal's flat, married to the postal worker who hates the Nazis. He was spotted acting suspiciously near one of the drops - he'd been trying to get a doctor's order to cover for his cutting work. Lots of suspicion will surround him, and we know he'll talk - probably implicating his wife and who knows how many others. This is as scary a vision of society as you're ever likely to read, and all told so subtly, with no stylistic flashes whatever.

Friday, May 7, 2010

How could I have missed it? How Frau Rosenthal really died

What an idiot I am - and to show the integrity of this blog I won't go back and alter/delete yesterday's post (this is after all a daily record of my thoughts about my reading, even if those thoughts are way off base) - but yesterday I wrote that the jewish widow, Lore Rosenthal, in Hans Fallada's "Every Man Dies Alone" dies of an OD of sleeping pills. Not so! I wasn't completely wrong - she does take a fistful of pills as she tries to escape from her jailor/protector, but what I completely forgot is that the Nazi thugs discover her when she goes back to her apartment - one takes her into the kitchen to "interrogate" her - and then we hear (offstage, so to speak) a scream and than a cursing - the Nazi/Hitler youth guy is mad that she got away and jumped out the window. It's really a great scene of horror and despair, and told entirely through indirection - we never see the leap, we don't see her body in the courtyard, just the reactions, and how they vary across the scope of the building: anger that she got away, fear, disgust at the Fuhrer's regime and his thugs. No excuses - but I can see how I missed it, the great dramatic moment told with such subtlety and deft strokes. As the story moves into its 2nd (of 4) sections, we begin to see more of the resistance - Otto Quangel, who had been basically a nonpolitical, taciturn worker, becomes outraged at the regime and decides to strike back - he (and his wife, Anna) begin making cards of protest that they leave in various places across Berlin, which they hope will seed a movement. What a smart and creepy idea - people so afraid to speak out that they have to do so through these cryptic messages. The inside page pages of the book show a map of Berlin with red flags where the cards have been discovered (the Gestapo is creating such a map) - wonder whether this obscure German novel was a source material for Gravity's Rainbow, the idea that a map of wartime events could carry a secret code or message (in GR it was German airstrikes in London, and how they could be predicted by where one of the characters had his sexual encounters).

Thursday, May 6, 2010

It would be easy to write about heros - this book is more subtle

Surprising development in the excellent "Every Man Dies Alone" (Hans Fallada): the jewish widow in the Berlin apartment building dies of an OD of sleeping pills. Very powerful and disturbing - she's sheltered for three days by an elderly judge who lives in her building, and the easy route would be to make the judge a schindler-like hero, make this an adult version of Anne Frank (which Fallada would not have known about anyway, ca 1947 when he wrote the book), but no, he's much more sly and complex, the judge takes her in and sets down a ton of rules - she has to stay in the spare bedroom, never open the shades during the day, never leave the room, never try to contact him - it's worse than a prison, it's like a tomb. He's a hero, taking on a great risk, but he's not a humanitarian, he's almost inhumane - and she practically goes insane, she decides facing her fate in the world - anything - would be better than this shelter-captivity. She timidly emerges, the cleaning lady shoos her back in, and then she takes a fistful of pills, escapes, finds her way back to her looted apartment. The Nazis/Hitler youth family in the building find her there and one sharp-eyed guy notices her shoes are clean and it's been raining out - he figures that someone in the building has sheltered her. Will they figure it out? It's extremely odd that she dies of an OD of pills, as the jacket liner notes that Fallada himself died of an OD of morphine shortly after the war. There's tragedy on many levels of this book.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ordinary lives in extraordinary times - a book too long ignored

"Every Man Dies Alone" continues (110+ pp) as a really excellent read, easy to follow, full of great scenes of tension and moral dilemma, a story about ordinary people with many flaws and foibles living in their various ways through extraordinary times, under the Nazi rulers and thugs. The central tenet is the confluence of bestial forces around the widow Rosenthal's apartment - a couple of drunks and ne're do wells break in and begin to pillage the place, they're not Nazis, they're not even political in the slightest way, but certainly willing to use the cloak of Nazi anti-Semitism to steal from the Jewish widow for their own gain - hapless monsters. But they're caught in the act by the Nazi family that lives downstairs and really want the apartment for themselves - they beat the crap out of these two guys and dump them on the street. Meanwhile, the widow takes refuge with a retired judge, who's willing to shelter her, at some risk to himself, but only under the tightest of restrictions - holding her a virtual prisoner. Does he have no feeling for her, no human feelings at all? The third strand of the story is the Quangel family, son just killed in the war, the father very cold to his wife and shows no sorrow about his son's death, but tells his son's fiance and she lets slip that she's in a "cell" of resistance - then worries and confesses to her cellmates, afraid Quangel will blab. There are spies everywhere, everybody walks in fear, and to resist is extremely dangerous, and brave. It's a book with all kinds of shadings of morality and no obvious heros, no obvious answers.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Would you have been one of them? : Every Man Dies Alone

"Every Man Dies Alone" continues to be a great read (nearly 100 pp in - it's a +500-page novel) - lots of action in the first few chapters, lots of tension, none of it gratuitous or improbable, feels like a very solid realistic novel of the mid-20th century best-seller variety, but rising above the genre because of its tragic and little-explored subject matter of German resistance to the Nazis. What's particularly compelling is that these are not heroic resisters in the schindler/spielberg/hollywood mold, but ordinary people, ordinary Germans, the ones much-maligned, justifiably, by history. There were millions who went along, silently acquiesced, but a few who didn't, and this book gives you a sense of who they were and forces you to think: would you have been one of them? We all like to think yes, of course - but it's so much easier to just quietly go along, join the party, sit in the back and don't speak out. Hans Fallada has a very spare, unadorned style - it doesn't feel like you're reading "literature," and this material would have been handled differently, maybe better, by any number of his contemporaries - but they didn't handle it and he did. It reminds me, just a little, of A Man Without Qualities (named chapters, omniscient and objective 3rd person, several different narrative strands within a small urban enclave that will inevitably intersect), but far more conventional in its tone and more sensational in its action: first few chapters center on the looting of the apartment of Jewish widow and how others in the building react to this incident. Would this book make a good movie or series?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Fallada's tragic life & his great novel of German resistance

Hans Fallada's "Every Man Dies Alone" was out of print for a long time, republished last year by the Melville Press, got quite a buzz (within the tiny circle of people who read this kind of book). It's about German resistance to the Nazis, and unusual in that it was written by a German very shortly after the war. Fallada had a tragic life, was institutionalized for various mental illnesses, died of a morphine OD in 1947. Book starts off well, and covers material very unfamiliar to American readers. We've seen a lot of books/movies about Jewish resistance and also about the a very few German resistance heroes, e.g., Schindler, but Every Man Dies Alone is more about ordinary Germans, most of whom slavishly supported the Fuhrer but a few of whom were good people - but it's much easier to go along quietly than to resist actively. This is their trauma, their struggle. The book seems to focus on one apartment building, and in particular one family, the Quangels, who've just lost their son in the war - the wife blames Hitler, the husband is not so sure, more timid. But they're being drawn toward an opposition. A Nazi fanatic family lives on the first floor, a Jewish widow on the 4th. Th Quangels feel sorry for the widow but will they step up for her? What will they do? What would most people do? Sadly, probably very little - just go a long, join the party if you have to do it to keep your job. The style of the book is extremely simple - written more like a best-seller of the era - Uris, Wouk, et al. - than like most literature on this topic.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Bellow could be a cranky bastard -Saul Bellow's letters

Reading Saul Bellow's letters, an excerpt from a forthcoming collection, in last week's New Yorker - a trip to a bygone era that's not far gone, really. To read his early letters, mostly to fellow writers - you can see that this is how writers communicated to one another in the 40s-80s, way before email, phone calls were expensive, travel was less abundant - they really used these letters to discuss literature, to figure things out, to make amends, and, to a lesser extent, to settle scores. Bellow seems pretty confident of his place in the canon, even from an early age, and you have a sense in reading these that he always was writing for future publication (maybe when young he thought it was because of the recipient). Clear that he could be a cranky bastard - one of the more interesting of the letters is to another writer whom he'd apparently slighted, wounded, or dismissed at a small conference at Wagner College - the letter tries to salve the wounds, but it's clear that Bellow pulled no punches, even in person, and that the fellow writer was not bound for a great career. Another interesting one: his early contact with Roth - Bellow even recommends Roth call his agent, though he's not effusive in his praise of Roth, by any means - can tell him frankly when a story is more idea than story. Fair's fair, and Bellow can be very critical of his own work, esp. his first two novels and then his breakthrough, Augie March - he's aware of how his work can fall short of his ambitions. He seemed to mellow a bit later in life - a long letter to Cynthia Ozick dances around the obvious truth, that Bellow didn't like her Stockholm novel at all (with good reason). By the time Bellow is an icon, it's obvious that people are writing to him in part to have a place in (his) history. How will we ever preserve dialogues and discussions like from today's writers?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Let's give the great Alice Munro one Mulligan

The last and title story in Alice Munro's "Too Much Happiness" is unfortunately the weakest in the collection, but we'll give the great Munro one Mulligan, right? She's obviously trying something a little different in this story - it's longer than most of what she's written, set in Europe - a very rare if not unique break from her Canadian milieu - and altogether feels Old World and for that matter fusty. In a note, Munro says she read a good biography of the main character, a female mathematician/novelist whose career success was hindered by the sexism of the era (she has to work in Stockholm rather than at one of the major universities) and she has a complex love life, marrying for convenience, then spurned by the man she loves, though it's all a little hard to follow in this story, which is rather sketchy and built around just a few episodes in her life, the rest just touched upon in a few sentences. Yes, it is good material, but it feels unworked, and I'm left wondering what Munro added to the source material. I would think she could have explored this woman's life as both novelist and mathematician, but we learn nothing about her writing - an opportunity missed. The character - what's her name? Sophia maybe? - is a Russian emigre. English-language writers seem endlessly fascinated with the deaths of Russian writers and wanderers. Carver wrote one of his last stories about Chekhov's death (obviously they were kindred spirits in their physical suffering), so many stories about the death of Tolstoy - and Munro's trying a different take, with a feminist take. Not a great story - but she is a great writer, and always pushing the boundaries of the genre.