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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

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Can Gabrial Garcia Marquez work within the confines of the novella?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novella "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" is good and in a weird way would probably be better if it weren't by one of the world's great novelists but inevitably we hold GGM to a higher standard and therefore this somewhat slight novella seems small set against 100 Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera. It's the story of one episode, murder to avenge a sister's ruined reputation, seen from the perspective of about 20 years after the fact, the facts of the story uncovered by the narrator who visits his hometown to interview those still around and reconstruct the story - much like a journalist (though it's never stated that he was doing research for any kind of writing project), much like GGM (former journalist) himself, in fact maybe GGM had embarked on exactly this "assignment" when younger. It has many of the strengths of GGM's best work, such as the atmospherics, the sometimes ludicrous attention to detail (the precise accounting for an description of the knife wounds, e.g.), the sense of the interconnected lives of those in a remote village or small city- but it doesn't have the capacity to stand alone as a novella, there's not enough of a presence of a payoff - as noted in yesterday's post, it seems like stray chapter from another work. I did expect more of a twist at the end, in fact thought I could see it coming (spoiler!): would it have been possible that the two brothers did not kill Santiago? That someone else got there first? But no, the story is as it appears to be, and the characters afterwords went on to live through the sorrows of their lives - beautifully written and evoked, but it shows that GGM needs the larger canvas of a novel in order to work at his best.

Friday, April 29, 2011

On first looking into Garcia Marquez : A classic beheld

Way back when I was in a grad school I remember a friend in Romance Languages (A.K.) touting a novel none of us (in English) had seen by a guy nobody'd ever heard of, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and of course we were skeptical - it's probably just some weird trendy flavor-of-the-month novel that the Romance Languages students are psyched about because finally they'll have something to read other than Cervantes - and of course the book was One Hundred Years of Solitude (title even better in Spanish, which I will probably misspell as Cien anos de soledad) and as soon as each of us read it we knew: this is a book that people will be reading 100 years from now. It was so obviously an immediate world classic - and Gracia Marquez obviously became the most highly regarded novelist in the world. I've read many of his books since Solitude, but never picked up his 1981 novella, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, till now - and of course it's great - much in the style of Solitude but obviously less grand and ambitious. Actually, its claim as a novella is a little thin - it's only 120 pages with a lot of space and could probably be a long chapter from Solitude, and maybe it was (there is some overlap of character and place references) - but it does stand alone. Like Solitude, it has a stunning beginning, looked back upon from many years after the event (a honor killing in coastal Colombian city) - also has that sense of a small community in which everyone is entangled in everyone else's life, achieved by the first-person plural narrative, but in this case the story told almost as a journalistic investigation, a man goes back to the town to probe people's memories and recollections and put together the story of the long-ago death.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

What makes Nicole Krauss great and what would make her better?

Does Nicole Krauss bring it off? Yes, kinda - she does complete the magic trick, catch the eight or so balls she's been juggling, and bring her novel "Great House" to a conclusion that more or less answers all of the enigmas of the complex plot. It's a strange kind of narrative, almost unique - mysterious, but not exactly a mystery. In a mystery, everything is resolved - to the satisfaction of the characters. In Krauss's novel, everything is resolved - to the satisfaction of the reader, but not the characters. We know what strands tie all these plot elements together but the characters do not; we're given special knowledge. I have to say the plot is still very hard to discern, hard to maintain in your mind at the same time - I'd probably need to sketch out on paper who the characters are, how they're related or not, who owns or owned at various times the writer's desk that works as the Maguffen, an object that drives the novel forward. At the end it does become clear that the novel itself is the Great House, an imagined space in which characters can wander and even get lost or disappear. This might be a good book-group read, as it leaves much to discuss, unpack, and debate. I liked much of it - especially the two "Your Honor" sections - I think Krauss is great at capturing the lonely, sometimes selfish, life of a writer, a mixture of bravura and self-doubt. Other sections hinge too much on coincidence and melodrama. I must be in a minority here, but I wish Krauss would try to write a straightforward novel in traditional third person - I know it's the baroque and capacious nature of her narrative that her many fans admire, but I wonder if all the architectural claptrap is a device, a defense, keeping her from opening up and facing her greatest material head-on.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Can Nicole Krauss tie together the many strands of Great House?

By this point, 2/3rds in, I'm not sure what to make of Nicole Krauss's promising but elusive novel "Great House." As noted in previous posts, she gets the novel off to a great start, posing the mystery of a desk that gets passed around among several writers and affects their lives in varying ways, and ultimately one of the owners of the desk "disappears" during the Pinochet regime in Chile - setting off a search for him, in a sense - a great beginning, but now I'm a long way through and instead of the threads coming together they're ever loosening and fraying at the edges - frustrating! Particularly so because some of the characters Krauss creates along the way are great, with interesting back stories, but the novel is either poorly organized or organized on such a vast and subtle scheme that it's almost impossible to follow. As noted yesterday, the second half of the novel mirrors the first with each of the four sections in part one getting a reprise in part two - now I'm on the part 2 section of Your Honor, in which an American writer (the one who took the desk from the young Chilean poet years back) addresses a judge (dying in a hospital? in Israel? we have met a judge in an earlier section but he's British, can't figure this out) and telling a rather long tale of how by chance she met an Israeli who looks like the Chilean poet of years back - his son? How could that be? Page by page, section by section, I like this book very much, but I can't get my mind around the design of the whole story - there are some great books that bring this multiplicity of plot off effectively - Gravity's Rainbow, for one example - but you have to put a great deal of faith in the author, you have to have confidence that you're in good hands, that the author is in full control of his/her material. I'm still interested, but not fully confident.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Writers seldom try the 2nd-person narrator, and with good reason!

No doubt Nicole Krauss, in "Great House," owes a debt to the great A. B. Yehoshua, and it's not just the setting (of part of her novel) among the legal-community intelligentsia in contemporary Israel - it's also her penchant for experiment in narrative voice and plot structure. Yehoshua famously has written several novels that adhere to a weird narrative schema - for example, one that is entirely composed of one side of a dialog, the interlocuter's voice silent of understood - and Krauss tries some of the same: her novel composed in two parts, each with four sections with different places, characters, settings, the second part bringing, I hope, some closure and completion to the many unanswered questions of part 1. I'm enjoying reading Great House because, with some quibbles, each section is strong and credible and because Krauss opened the novel with a very provocative mystery - the tale of a writer's desk as it passes through the hands and lives of various owners - that I hope she will resolve. The first section in part II, picking up from one of the sections in part I, tells of a wayward son who returns to Israel for an awkward detente with his newly widowed father; Krauss has the father narrate this section in 2nd person, as some kind of letter or statement to the difficult son - and there's a reason few writers attempt the 2nd person, because it can feel very strained and phony: the voice is more Krauss's than an elderly Israeli attorney and, more important, about 95 percent of the narrative is stuff the supposed recipient would already know. I continue to feel that Krauss is a really strong writer but that she is not as well suited to the narrative experiments that so appeal to her - if she could just settle down and tell her story, her novel would be stronger - but I'm still holding out hope for a solid conclusion.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Putting faith in novelists: We expect the strands to come together

Reading a novel, we put faith in the author - that what he or she begins he/she will resolve, that the many strands and characters and locations put forth in the opening chapters all bear some meaning to the book as a whole and relevance to one another. I am putting faith in Nicole Krauss as I read her novel "Great House" because she gets so much right, but I also, halfway through the novel, am a bit concerned. First half of the novel consists of four sections of about equal weight and import, each one very well written, especially the first, which gives a terrific account of the life of the writer and sets in motion a kind of mystery about the provenance of a writer's desk that gets bequeathed in varying circumstances to a number of different authors. The next three sections have other oblique references to this desk, and one of the main characters in the first section, the Chilean poet who left the desk behind in nyc and then "disappeared" under Pinochet thuggery, makes a brief appearance in the 3rd section, as he meets the mother who gave him up for adoption. Still and all, I'm half-way through the book and much as I like each section the strands have not yet come together. Will they? I fear at times that Krauss is better at the elements of fiction than at the overall architecture of a novel, or that she has a tendency to get too fanciful and playful with her narrative structure - but I am interested in each of the characters she creates and will follow them to the end - Fourth section contains terrific account of the loneliness and uncertainty a graduate exchange student feels in adjusting to a new land, very thoughtfully and beautifully conveyed.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

One of the most honest accounts of the actual life of a writer : Great House

The New Yorker excerpted some of Nicole Krauss's "Great House," possibly in the 20 under 40 series, and the excerpt didn't do the piece justice; I've started reading the novel and so far am very impressed, particularly first section, called All Rise - in which a woman narrates to a judge (the text interspersed with a few superfluous "your honor's") an account of how she was for a time the owner (or keeper) of a writing desk left to her by a young Chilean poet who (apparently) later became one of the disappeared in the Chilean oppression. First of all, this section is I would say the best and most honest account I've read - recently? ever? - of the actual life of a writer - the hard work, lack of glamor and glory, the occasional joy of recognition, the satisfaction with doing the job well, the fetishization of objects, the strain the profession puts on relationships, the strange disappearance into the lives of others who don't actually exist - Krauss perfectly captures all this as well as the sense of a time and place, NYC in the 80s or so, the crazy devotion writers can have to the beauty of poetry - I really loved this section of the novel. The next section takes place in Israel, the 3rd, which I'm still reading, in London - both strong accounts of complex relations, the London particularly sharp as, again, it focuses on a writer's life - my only concern with this very promising books is how effectively, if at all, Krauss will tie these strands together - like many writers in her cohort, she has a tendency to poke around with a lot of narrative tics and devices when it would serve her better to just tell the story - she obviously has the ability and the material.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

What good are e-books? What good are cheap paperbacks?

Here's something that won't happen when you read an e-book: the pages wont break apart, crumple, deteriorate in your hands. I love the feeling of holding a book and of reading print on white paper and of gauging my progress as I move through a long volume, all of which would be abandoned if I were ever to switch to e-books (or if the switch is made without my acquiescence, as seems to be the case). Yet many of the books in my collection are really old - and cheap. When I was a grad student or a young professor and always trying to build my library I scouted out a lot of books in garage sales and library sales, and as a result a lot of my older books, the classics, are cheap editions, very old, sometimes with someone else's scribble and notes and highlights. Those, I have more or less discarded - have no desire for that kind of distraction when reading a good book. But some of the others - it's kind of discouraging. Within the past year I re-read Updike's Museums & Women, loving every page as it literally fell apart in my hands and I had to toss it away. Re-read Toomer's Cane, and the old glue binding just snapped in half, then into quarters. Recently read through for the first time Malamud's The Magic Barrel, again an act of disintegration that, I think, took away some of the pleasure I might have had in a newer edition - tossed it when through. Last night started re-reading Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, and the pages are yellowed and fragile - wasn't enjoying the novel much and wonder if it had anything to do with the condition of the book. If I pursue it farther, will be in a library edition or newly purchased pb. E-books may have a role in life after all (or at least high-quality pbs) - and maybe the old pb's have an evolutionary function as well, encouraging us to recycle, ecologically and intellectually.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The post-Hemingway Western macho men : McGuane's stories

A friend in Buffalo spends time in summer fishing in Montana and has told me about his friendship with Tom McGuane, and from all accounts McGuane sounds like a terrific guy - and that should be no surprise, you can tell that from his stories: confident, assured, stories about mostly honorable men who may have made mistakes but are trying to get along in this world and have decent relations with women, family, and neighbors, strong and competent men who do the manly Montana things of hunting, fishing, ranching, but who are post-Hemingway in style and sensibility - a lot like Richard Ford's men, but more rooted in the Rockies and the West. His stories also give the West a modern sensibility - they're not ranch-hand stories a la Annie Proulx's recent work, but stories about the changing west, where most of the ranches are now owned by Hollywood stars (or more likely agents and producers) and there's plenty of spilloff opportunity for the ambitious and the alert. His story in the current New Yorker, The God Samaritan, is quite good and quite typical of McGuane's short fiction - a part-time rancher with a good day job in some kind of tech-sales industry, with son in prison (drugs, federal), ex-wife in San Diego, elderly mother nearby and eccentric - injures himself and hires a ranch hand to run the place temporarily. Complications ensue. There's a bit of a twist at the end which I could see coming from a mile away, but overall the story is quite effective and gives a real sense of a character in time and place, facing and facing up to the complex problems of modern life - same in Montana or anywhere.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

When political allegory is also good literature : Kadare

Finished Ismail Kadare's collection "Agamemnon's Daughter," and was particularly impressed by the 2nd of the 3 pieces, The Blinding Order, a really strange allegorical story (novella maybe) about an unnamed Muslim-Christian country whose government orders that anyone with the "evil eye" (a strange staring - such as someone standing and staring at a bridge under construction - who knows?, they may be trying to send destructive thought-waves to the bridge) be blinded by one of five methods, described. Obviously the story is by indirection and allusion an attack on the repression in Kadare's Albania or by extension in any totalitarian state - but what's impressive to me, first, as noted in yesterday's post, is the incredible bravery of Kadare in writing this piece and publishing it (abroad) at a time when he was living under the repressive Hoxner regime and subject to arrest or worse, and, second, the literary qualities of this piece - it's not just polemical or a rant or a thinly veiled analogy (cf., Animal Farm), but has its own strangeness and oddity, the creation of a peculiar, populated world - he focuses the story on one family in which future son-in-law is tapped to serve on the committee that metes the punishment and this basically destroys him and is marriage - also note the odd discussions as to who would get blinded by which method, the incredible distraction of life under tyranny when people debate the small things rather than the overall horror: all societies do this, to varying degrees, as we see in the U.S. today with the ridiculous debates about such distractions as illegal immigration as all the while taxes for the corporations and for the wealthy enjoy the largesse of their tax cuts. Last story in collection, The Great Wall, is a little more abstract and softer - perhaps because by this time Kadare living in exile, and, much like Kundera in France, losing is animus and edge?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The incredible bravery of Ismail Kadare

One of two stories in Ismail Kadare's "Agamemnon's Daughter" (a novella & two stories) is The Blinding Order, set in a unnamed Muslim-Christian country where the government orders that anyone with the "evil eye" (whatever that may be, some kind of strange staring that brings ill fortune) be blinded by one of five prescribed methods. As story progresses, we begin to focus on a mixed-religion family in which the son-in-law to be is appointed as a member of the committee that determines who becomes blinded. Obviously this story is a political allegory, very much about life in any oppressive regime but specifically about life in Kadare's Albania, in the mid-80s. Kadare's bravery in writing these works and publishing them (abroad) is simply astounding. Any quibbles I might have about the literary values of the pieces in this collection - and they are very fine if works of literature - pale beside my amazement that anyone would be brave enough to take on a regime, even by indirection. I've written a number of pieces in my life that are critical of the U.S. and the government, but never feared for my life and safety because of this. What would propel a writer to take the risks Kadare took? His works are not as full of life as some of the other Eastern bloc-Soviet fiction of his time - Kundera, most notably, also Aksyomonov (?) author of The Burn - they're not about the underground literary-political society within these Communist countries but are more or a direct attack, though allegory and innuendo, against the regime themselves - in that way more stark, more cold, more brave.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A valuable account of life under oppression - though not a great novella : Kadare

Ismail Kadare's "Agammemnon's Daughter," a novella written in Albanian in 1984, smuggled into France and not published under the author's name till the fall of the Hoxner regime in the mid-90s, is a curiosity, best appreciated as a documentary record of the history of communist oppression rather than as a great literary novella - because that it's not, it's a pretty straightforward account of a young man watching the May Day parade in Tirana and concerned that his girlfriend seems to have abandoned him and speculating that she did so for political reasons, her father's orders, perhaps, as he is destined to rise in the hierarchy and doesn't want her associating with people such as the protagonist who may be a threat to the state (though the protagonist himself has procured a coveted invite to the viewing stands, and he's not sure how or why) - there's much comparison between the girl's dumping him and Agammemnon's sacrifice of his own daughter on the eve of departure for the Trojan War - well, this is a little grandiose, isn't it? Maybe she's just not that into him. Anyway, we get a good glimpse of the Kafkaesque world of the oppressive regime, in which people can be fired, demoted, replaced, displaced, or killed for the slightest antistate comment and everyone is looking over shoulders and looking for signs of who's in who's out - it's a snapshot, but it's not that well developed dramatically, the confrontations promised never occur. I appreciate that it was written under great duress and its publication was nothing less than heroic, but these very pressures may have prevented Kadare from developing this novella into the work it might have been.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Communism under the influence - of Kafka : Kadare's fiction

I don't know why but increasingly I'm drawn toward Eastern European 20th-century fiction, and last night started Ismail Kadara's "Agammemnon's Daughter," an Albanian novel (yes, how obscure can you get, right?) of really odd provenance - as the preface explains (not all that clearly) he smuggled the manuscript out a few pages at the time sometime in the mid-80s (he apparently wrote it about 1984-86 and it's set in the 80s) to friends in Paris, was translated into French and published (I think under a pseudonym) in the 90s, then the Hoxner tyrannic regime fell and Kadare identified as the author, translated into French, the English version appearing not till 2003 and translated from the French translation, whew - can't even keep up with all that - the book is the typically grim story of life within a rigid communist country, takes place on May Day, the protagonist is surprised to find himself invited to watch the parade from an official viewing stand, section C, not sure what he's done to merit this and feels varying degrees of guilt for being accepted - and of course he looks at all the others and wonders what complicity they've been involved with - hero works for state broadcasting so he could have done a lot, but it's all rather murky; in the back story, his girlfriend, supposed to meet him and join him for the festivities, never shows up, so we're not sure what's happened to her - story owes a deep debt to Kafka, as there are many ruminations about the absurdity and incomprehensibility of the state.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Why Malamud's on the margins

The title story in Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel" is quite good and oft-anthologized, though that's not the only reason I am sure I was not alone in foreseeing the "surprise" ending - Malamud has a weakness for these little twists at the end of his stories which leads me to think readers (and editors) in his day were easy marks, expecting every story to be straightforward and easily not off their pins by a little surprise twist (my gosh, the matchmaker's trying to set up the client/rabbi with his own daughter, who'd have thought?) or readers have become far more sophisticated thanks in part to writers like Malamud, who skirted the boundaries between realism and fantasy. He's not quite as fantastical as I.B. Singer, with his golems and djybuks, but Malamud, looking back on him from a 50-year vantage, was far more Old World than his contemporary kinsman, Roth and Bellow: Malamud's characters don't feel like Americans in the 1950s, they're like the 1650s! Compare with Roth and Bellow who write about young Jewish Americans struggling to make it in contemporary society, struggling with their families who may have Old World values, accents, traditions, but are in the game, insurance, sales, baseball - think of Bellow's famous opening line in Augie March: I am American, Chicago born. That declares the world in which they worked; Malamud seems ancient in comparison. I don't say this necessarily as a critique, a writer can choose (and create) his or her own world or milieu, but it does explain I think why Malamud has slipped to the margins and Roth and Bellow are still and I think always will be at the center of any discussion of 20th-century writing in America.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

If James were a Jew : James v Malamud

If James were a Jew, imagine how he might have written Bernard Malamud's tragicomic story The Lady in the Lake (in "The Magic Barrel") - first of all it would have been 100 pages instead of 20, and it would have painfully and subtly analyzed the yearnings of the protagonist, Levin, changing his name to Freeman as he heads off to Europe to find himself, as they used to say - yes, Malamud is heavy-handed with the symbolism. Freeman would have pondered forever and never come close to making making a play for the mysterious lady in white whom he spies on the Del Dondo estate on an island in the Italian lakes. The story would be nuanced and strange and difficult and frustrating, which is to say Jamesian - not comic and rambunctious and gently mocking of the protagonist and his pretensions, which is to say Jewish-American. James sets a really high standard and - not to bang on Malamud particularly, he was a young writer charting some new territory - but Malamud doesn't measure up. Is there any reader alive today who wouldn't pick up on where this story is headed, as soon as Lady Del Dondo asks Freeman if he's Jewish? Were these tricky endings really such a novelty back when the story was published in the '50s? I doubt an editor anywhere would go for this today - which is really just good evidence that fiction grows and evolves, what seemed groundbreaking in Malamud's fiction back then now seems well-trodden ground. Similarly Malamud's story Take Pity - though the ending is a little more surprising - a census taker asks a man to tell the story of his life and we don't really see why this is so till the end - the story relies way too heavily on the comic shtick of yiddishims - lots of funny lines, but it all feels so quaint and arcane today.

Friday, April 15, 2011

There are Jews everywhere! : Malamud's early stories

Today, 50-some years after initial publication (hard to believe!), the stories in Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel" feel a but musty and out of date (or maybe it's the ancient Vintage pb from which I'm reading them, as the old glue binding breaks apart in my hands). Seriously, there are some really funny moments in these stories about suffering old (or sometimes young) Jews - the scene in The Angel Levine when the beset-upon tailor Manishevitz comes across a Talmudic discussion in a Harlem synagogue, the last line of the same story: There are Jews everywhere!, the rambling first paragraph of Girl of My Dreams in which bumbling novelist burns his manuscript, the hapless guy on looking for apartment in Rome and led on a Dantean tour of unsuitable locales by the dubious nonlicensed, part-time realtor, Bevilacqua. And so on. The stories have plenty of literary and Biblical references or allusions, and they also foreshadow to a degree some postmodern techniques (the novelist burning his manuscript in Girl of My Dreams seems to live within in an endless loop of failed or frustrated novelists, as if the story will reading will burn itself up before we complete it) - all good, and yet, they don't have the sense that I got years ago and would still get today on re-reading from the stories of Malamud's Jewish literary contemporaries, Roth, Bellow, I.B. Singer (a bit older) of a complete world to which I'm given sudden and startling access. Malamud's stories feel more literary, more composed, more touched up by the writer at work rather than from the heart or from the well of experience - but I'll keep going in the collection, am curious about the stories set in Rome and how effectively he explores the conflict of cultures (Jewish American - postwar Italian).

Thursday, April 14, 2011

When Jews were News: Looking back on Malamud and Roth

There was a time, the 1950s, when magazines and publishers were hungry for stories about and by American Jews, particularly first-generation, urban dwelling, striving immigrant American Jews. Jews were the literary exotic of the time; to put it mildly, today we Jews have moved from the byways to the mainstream, and it's amazing, looking back at those 50s stories, to think of New Yorker and other staid editors reading them and thinking they'd received news from another world. We do read fiction to get the news from another world, and editors are, rightly, always looking out for what's new. There's probably an over-enthusiasm today for just about any story written from a third-world country, and some of what we see in the major mags and on the shelves is great - the stories of Munuedden, for example - and other stuff is mediocre at best and I figure the only reason it's prominently published is that it's unusual to most Western readers. I've been poking around, on a friend's suggestion, in Bernard Malamud's first story collection, "The Magic Barrel," and found the first two stories at least to be very finely crafted and very dated - no way that these tales of East Side immigrants would be so well-received today, but that's because Malamud has tilled the ground already. He apparently broke through just as did Roth (Philip; the other Roth was a bit earlier and similar to Malamud), and the differences between them are huge - Roth looking forward toward the Americanization and obviously straining to break out into the novelist he would become, Malamud looking backward to the Old World, closer in style, spirit, setting, and sensibility to IB Singer and the Yiddish writers of NYC who had not yet been translated often in English.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

They Burn the Thistles - conservative ideology in radical garb?

Yashar Kemal's "They Burn the Thistles" is a pretty long journey toward not much of a conclusion, as, unsurprisingly, the peasants of the village of Vayvay triumph over the tyrannical landlord, Ali Safa Bey, and celebrate by burning the thistles in the fields - yet as hinted earlier on it's an ambiguous victory as there are many other aghas and beys (various rulers backed by the distant government in Ankara) ready to step forward and try to grab the land again, illegally, through trickery and thuggery. The heroic Slim Memed, who kills Bey at the end (in an amazingly poorly scripted denouement, as it appears he just walks into his home and shoots him - what took so long?), disappears into the sunset, in the style of so many American Westerns - I believe there is at least one sequel to this novel? In the last chapters, Memed at last gets together with his destined believed, Seyrim (sp?), and his new love inspires him, in part, to break out of his funk and take action. In the preface to the NYBR edition, Bill McKibben notes that the true hero of the novel is the village (or the villagers) of Vayvay, who shake of the yoke of oppression. Yes, maybe - I would guess that's how Kemal would like us to see it, the heroic peasantry uniting in common interest, but many aspects of that disturb me and don't ring true. Why are the villagers so dependent on the inspiration of the young outlaw, Memed, to take action? Why can't they act without him? Oddly, he reminds me at times of an Osama character, hiding in the mountains and eluding authority - though clearly he is not a terrorist and his motives are all good. And what about the Beys and aghas (the rulers), are they really so horrible (in the book they are cruel to the point almost of comedy, with their stuttering and their annoying wives), but in the reality, Turkey in the 1920s, are they in some ways reformers, modernists, who upset the village life? Is Kemal at heart a conservative, fetishizing the village ways and opposed to progress?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Radical or reactionary? : Kemal as proto Tea Party novelist

Toward the end of Yashar Kemal's "The Burn the Thistles," the folk-hero Slim Memed reflects that his life as a resistance fighter, or "brigand," as the novel calls it, has been pointless: the peasants of the Turkish village (Vayvay) could defeat the evil Ali Safa Bey, and a new one, a thousand tyrants, would rise to take his place. This is a grim and despairing viewpoint and gets at the heart of the ideology of this novel. Difficult to grasp as it may be, it seems to me that Kemal's book purports to be or imagines itself as a radical tract in support of the poor peasants and villagers who rise up against the oppression of the tyrant, government-backed landlords. No doubt the peasants are noble and true to one another (for the most part) and brave and close to the earth and to the forces of nature, where as the landlords are cruel and comically evil and obsessed with wealth and power and possessions - in other words, all the cliches. But is it really so? It would help to know something about Turkish history - Kemal presupposes an informed Turkish readership and gives little or no context - but it seems to me that in glorifying the peasants and, in particular, in making them completely dependent for the strength and bravery on a single, almost mythical leader (Memed), he actually has a very reactionary view of Turkish society: central government is evil, the workers close to the earthy should be left alone in their rural poverty because they're happier that way. Is this really true? Or is it a false nostalgia at best and a proto-Tea Party call (similar to the late Tolstoy?) for an end to social reforms and to progressive government?

Monday, April 11, 2011

The strange contradictions in They Burn the Thistles

As I near the end, Yashar Kemal's novel "They Burn the Thistles" sets the stage for a pitched battle between the peasants of the remote Turkish village Vayvay and the cruel landowners who have essentially stolen land and terrorized the peasants. The villagers are inspired by the presence near them of the legendary "brigand" Slim Memed, the Hawk. There are a number of twists and complications that are very hard for readers not versed in Turkish history to follow, but it seems that this novel, set in about the 20s?, is against a background of the new, Western-oriented Turkish government, far off in Ankara, and these new landowners act with the apparent backing of the government - they rationalize that they are bringing reform and prosperity to the villages but of course they are just amassing their own wealth and power. There are two layers two the landowner/ruling class, and they are in rivalry, and perversely Kemal gives them almost identical names, making the plot especially difficult to follow. Kemal's heart and sympathy are in the right place, by and large: his characters are painted with a broad, almost comic brush, and of course we want the peasants to stand up and throw off the yoke of oppression, but there's almost a medieval/spritual quality to his writing: the peasants/villagers are unable to act until inspired by the great and mysterious leader, Memed - it's almost as if Kemal believes that there has to be a worshipped ruler, that society has to be run by a "great man," that the solution is a return to feudalism or royalism. Despite all his sympathy for the poor villagers, I'm not sure he really trusts them.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Another writer worth watching in the current New Yorker

Interesting story in current New Yorker, Goo Book (sic), by Keith Ridgway, writer I'd never heard of, British apparently, this story far more hard-boiled and plot-driven than most New Yorker fiction and seeming to be a story rather than a novel excerpt, though I could be wrong on that, a novel could pick up on this central character, a London pickpocket and petty thief who gets a job as a driver for a London mob boss, then gets picked up by London police who pressure him into becoming an informant. The risk, the tension, are palpable, and Ridgway plays this off nicely against the back story of the driver/thief's ongoing, developing relationship with his girlfriend - book of title is a notebook through which they privately communicate with each other, expressing their emotions and feelings as each writes in the book, but they never talk about what they record in it. Story put me off at the very first with a stupidly vulgar opening line, but one me over quickly with the honesty of its dialogue and with the fast pace of the narrative. Ridgway apparently has a few books to his credit, but is not so well known, at least in the U.S., and maybe he will be blessed by this anointment. As noted in yesterday's post, The New Yorker seldom publishes true short stories any more and, pace its 20 under 40 production, has not championed writers of the short story in any significant way, but the past few issues have brought to the fore some writers that are definitely worth watching.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

What have you done for us lately? : Great short-story writers and The New Yorker

Old friend E.S. and I have resumed a 30-year-old discussion, carrying it forward on line now, regarding literature, short fiction, especially short fiction in The New Yorker, and though we haven't been in touch for many years great to see the ES and I still agree in the realm of taste, especially these salient points: Updike was one of the great writers of the century, Trevor is the greatest living writer in English, other great masters of she English-language short story include Welty and Cheever. ES asked me what I've been reading lately of interest and among other things I mention William Maxwell LoA edition; ES was surprised, considers him second-tier, but I think he deserves his spot in the Pantheon for So Long, See You Tomorrow, even if nothing else of his measures up to that height. Among short-story writers, ES recommended I read Malamud and Jean Stafford - have read almost no Stafford and will give her a try and have read Malamud only from time to time but have a few of his books and will go back to them. ES and I agree wholeheartedly that it's a shame that TNYer no longer develops and nurtures short-story talent - they tend to publish well-established or well-hyped writers and rarely publish true stories, very often just excerpts from soon-to-appear novels - they're shills, in other words. ES, however, notes two that TNYer has championed: Lahiri and Ha Jin. I've read Jin's Waiting but don't remember his stories; Lahiri is truly a master, but I have found that her stories all strike the same elegaic tone and reading a collection of her work can be trying. I would add Menueddin as one the magazine has championed who seems to me to be a potentially great writer.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Yashar Kemel's novel: World literature? or Action Comic?

Yashar Kemel's "They Burn the Thistles" might make a pretty good movie, might even make a pretty good American Western, if someone wanted to adapt it. But is it a great or even a good novel, or just a bunch of gunslinger cliches mixed in with some tales from remote Turkish villages? And if it is this mix, is that enough to make it great world literature? It's an odd book, full of these kinds of contradictions. On the one hand, easy to read, as the plot moves along at a pretty good clip and there aren't a whole lot of characters or complex events, everything's pretty much black and white - the good guys are good and the bad guys are evil, with no shading at all. On the other hand, it can be hard to read because of the many unusual (to me) names and place names and the rather long passages in which not much happens. On the one hand, it's an action-adventure, with a heroic figure coming back to his home town/village to exact vengeance against the evil tyrant who'd killed his beloved and members of his family. On the other hand, there's a lot of writing about nature - unusual in an action novel. On the one hand, the story moves along quickly, it's plot-driven. On the other hand, we're way ahead of the characters - we don't need Uncle Osman to say a hundred times, as he does, how much he loves Slim Memed and how he wishes he could tell the whole village that Memed is back - it gets tedious and repetitious, and I find myself skimming. One the one hand, you've read books like this (even comic books) before. On the other hand: were they set in rural Turkey?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A great epic novel or a pilaf Western? : They Burn the Thistles

Continuing on with yesterday's post, I think the real analogue for Yashar Kemal's "They Burn the Thistles" may be Louis L'Amour - it's like a pilaf Western but set in remote Turkey (probably a section of Turkey near Armenia and/or Kurdistan? despite his obsession with including obscure village names, he does little to make the location clear to non-Turkish readers, intentionally?), novel also appears to be set in about the 1920s (the villagers ride horses, if they're lucky, but there are a references to "motor cars," which we never see). So, no, Kemal, writing in 1969, is not a chronicler of modern-day Turkey, as Pahmet (sp?) is today, and was probably looked on by the intelligentsia as a bit of a hack, as someone who made Turkey look backwards and exotic to non-Turkish readers - so I would not hold him up as an example of great Turkish or European writing, but the book is pretty entertaining and does capture a bit of a vanished world: Slim Memed, 100 pages in, is still in hiding, and the his ancient uncle Osman is dying to tell people that Slim is back (like the arrival of a superhero), he keeps silent; meanwhile, the evil landowner and general tyrant and bully, Ali Safa Bey, attacks villagers at night, but old Osman fights back, shooting one of the Bey's soldiers in ambush. The battle is looming, but Memed the Hawk has not stepped out of hiding - it has the makings of a great epic battle, fought among the poor and the remote.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Great world literature or a Turkish potboiler? : They Burn the Thistles

Ludicrous first chapter aside, Yashar Kemal's "They Burn the Thistles," Turkish novel from 1969 now thankfully republished by the diligent NYBR press, gets going prtty quickly as a good story about an evil landowner, Ali Safran (?) Bey, who controls a group of villages in some remote part of Turkey at some indeterminate time in history - 20th century? I can't even tell - and pretty much bullies everyone and the legendary warrior Slim Mehmet (the Hawk) who returns secretly to the village, is sheltered by his elderly Uncle Osman, and who will inevitably take on the evil Bey. Early part of the novel tells of Bey's love for his Arabian thoroughbred and how he is tricked into exchanging the horse with one of the villagers and how he exacts brutal revenge (and the horse escapes - another chapter without any human follows the horse galloping across the plains, very odd). Once you get past the exotic (to me) nature of the names and locales, the story is quite easy to read and well-paced - and I have to wonder, is it too simplistic? It's really on some level not much more than a comic-book - the characters are types without complexity of feeling or motive, all evil or all good, the confrontations are drawn in the broadest of brushstrokes - so is Kemal really Turkey's greatest novelist, as the jacket blurb suggests (I doubt that, not since Snow), or is this book more or less at the level of a Leon Uris or Herman Wouk, best-selling page-turner that seems more profound to American readers because it's from and of a different culture? Translate the people and events into an American setting and picture how well they would stand up - OK as entertainment, pretty thin as literature.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

One of the most ludicrous first chapters ever written

Started Yashar Kemal's "The Burn the Thistles" last night and have to say the first chapter was so ludicrous I thought maybe it was a put-on. Many books (including mine) start with a paragraph or a passage that establishes a mood or a setting or a theme that is important to understanding and appreciating the work as it unfolds but is not essential to the plot or the characters, a bit of an introductory note or an overture, but in Thistles we get an entire fairly long chapter that describes the landscape and topography of, apparently, a Turkish (Kurdish?) mountainous region, dozens and dozens of place names, not one familiar (to Western readers anyway - and maybe they're fictitious), not a single human character - it's like a Hardy novel gone crazy. I thought, I'll never finish this book, I'll never even start it - and that said it's all the more surprising that in the 2nd chapter Thistles becomes far more conventional and engaging, as we begin with one of the familiar novelistic tropes - a stranger comes to town - we see a man on a night journey through the wilderness described in chapter 1 and he's on his way to a small town, in disguise - and when he arrives we learn he is not a stranger but a returning prodigal, a legendary fighter who will stay hidden in his uncle's home, and we learn that he will in some way confront the evil landlord/tyrant who has taken over the life of the village, so we're set for a classic confrontation and we'll see how it develops over some 400 pages. A Turkish novel, from I think the 60s, another in the many (mostly) European works destined for obscurity but reissued by the NYRB press (and mostly, sadly, remaindered).

Monday, April 4, 2011

Abandoning a novel in mid-stream

Smart and impressive as it is, I'm going to bail on Sandor Marai's novel "Portraits of a Marriage." I finished the first if (I think) 3 "portraits," the novel seems to be several perspectives, each a first-person confessional narrative addressed to a silent auditor (you, the reader) about a marriage gone bad, mid-20th-century Hungary. The first from the POV of the ex-wife, and at the end of 100 pages of her account, yes, I understand the difficulties she has faced but honestly it's a pretty long slog from a modest payoff: we learn the big "secret" that led to her breakup with her husband, he has had an affection for many years for his mother's peasant-born maid, in fact at one time asked her to marry him, she refused and the family would never have approved, etc. When the wife learns of this, through some odd and melodramatic circumstances (she finds a ribbon her husband has for years been carrying and somehow makes this connection), she tells him she wants to end the marriage, they live in estrangement, then divorce, and then apparently he does marry the maid, which will be the topic of the 2nd portrait/section of the novel. There are some books that are impressive, even magisterial, but just not that pleasant to read, and this was one: I admire the assiduous quality of Marai's writing and he's taken on a serious theme with, I think, some sense of using this marriage to portray an entire society - but all told the novel just did not hold my interest and did not compel me to want to read beyond the first section.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

An allegory about the complacency of mid-century Europe?

Still on the first portrait in Sandor Marai's "Portraits of a Marriage," and it seems to be a long and thoughtful and very accessible monologue in which jilted wife dishes on her insufferable husband - very European mid-century in tone and style, somehow reminds me of Svevo's great Confessions of Zeno, probably the confessional and informal style is what unites these books - they are both examples of high European modernism but, because of the colloquial and informal mode of address, both are more approachable and (in Svevo's case) more comical - not as intimidating as their near contemporaries Mann and Joyce. Marai's, from 1941 originally, in Hungarian, has been pretty obscure, and I'm glad it's now in print, and I have to get more aggressively into it, perhaps this afternoon - this far, he has established the strong tone and voice of the narrator, but there are not a lot of plot events - though I'm only 50 or so pages in. The story at this point: two or three years into their marriage, their child dies in near-infancy and this sends the husband even deeper into his cranky solitude, and the wife, the narrator this (section of the) portrait, feels deep guilt and depression, wants to win back her husband's love and attention, eventually goes to an unfamiliar church for a long confession, after which the kindly priest advises her simply to pray. Is this story allegorical? Is there some sense here in which this is about the church, or the powers that be in society, told people to sit back and pray, to not be involved, to not rock the boat, as Hitler took over Europe and, later, as the Soviets took over Hungary?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Another chronicler of the odd, and a new voice in short fiction

Ramona Ausubel seems to be an interesting new voice, and what a debut - a short story (Atria - no idea why it's called that) in current New Yorker with a TOC blurb stating her first novel and first story collection are forthcoming. Very nice - the story itself is much richer in happenstance and character development than most recent NY'er fiction - though once again I'm not sure whether to call it a story or not, as it does not seem to reach any resolution, just a point of departure - it may well be an excerpt from the above-mentioned forthcoming, so be it. Her voice is strong and unusual: Atria starts off in what seems to be a fairly typical story of teenage misfit angst, one of the not-popular girls in an all-American h.s., location unknown (maybe California? doesn't really matter), even time unspecified, though probably the near present, struggles with mom and with self-image, and then starts some very odd behavior, even in the realm of short fiction: has sex with a guy she meets behind a 7-11 (unlikely - the teen seems troubled but not insane) and then gets raped by a man who grabs her in a church parking lot - she gets pregnant, hides the pregnancy from mom till she's far along, decides to bear the child - and of course the odd twist is: who's the dad, the rapist or the store clerk, whom she takes to visiting and who visits her in the hospital. Alongside this, girl has increasingly odd and delusional thoughts, and finally does something very weird and cruel to the infant girl - and then the story ends. Yes, I'd want to read more - but not sure if this Ausubel or anyone could effectively maintain this pitch (a few other chroniclers of the odd have tried it, with varying success - think of Geek Love, which was I guess a one-hit wonder).

Friday, April 1, 2011

Another great European novelist condemned to obscurity : Marai

Sandor Marai's novel "Portraits of a Marriage," yes, portraits, published first in 1941, in Hungarian, and it seems to come back every 20 years without fail - now a new translation/edition in English - he's one of those European novelists, mid-century, so great, so austere, but but condemned to obscurity and hidden beneath the shadows of, pick one (or more), the Holocaust, Communism, an obscure language, a rigorous devotion to high literary style. I read one other Marai book, Embers, thought it was impressive and odd and I don't remember a whole lot about it; started Portraits last night - it seems a more ambitious and yet a more conventional book than Embers, draws you right in, a woman addressing her friend - you - about her ex-husband and everything that was wrong with their marriage. You can see from the start that this will be a novel very much about social class - he's more well-to-do than she, which is a huge factor in their estrangement, and also about sexism pure and simple, he seems to expect (and get, for a while) complete subservience. Will move on no doubt to infidelities - and then, I suspect, given the title, we will see more than one viewpoint on this marriage. Novel is pretty long, about 400 fairly dense pages, and though the reading is easy so far I will expect more of a plot, more tension, to develop because I think it unlikely I'd stick with a novel through that length if it's just a portrait, or a single person's ramblings about past events. I also suspect Marai, whole lived through some horrible times and was on the eve of those times when he wrote Portraits, will use the breakup of the marriage to convey his views of mid-century, middle-Europe society.