Saturday, December 31, 2016
Looking for a moment at the ending of Modiano's Missing Person: Don't you agree, whatever you may think of the novel up to this point, that Modiano carried the story just a chapter or 2 too far? Seems to me that he builds toward a fine conclusion: Over time, Guy, the narrator, regains at least pieces of his memory, and at last he has in his mind a clear account of the last days of his wife, Denise: they travel with three others (the English jockey, and another couple) to the border town of Megeve where they settle in for the winter, waiting for an opportunity to cross the border. Their companions become increasingly part of the social life of the village, which is risky - they should try to keep their profiles low. At last a Russian, who seems to be friendly, offers to convey Guy (using the name Pedro McEvoy) and Denise across the border into Switzerland. Foolishly, they split into two groups - and Guy/Pedro never sees Denise again. He survives somehow, we never know exactly how he gets back to the village in the middle of an Alpine blizzard, and from that point his memory is erased: to me, that's a perfect ending - disappearing into the whiteness. We understand that Denise is an analogue for all those obliterated by the Nazi Occupation and by their French collaborators and other opportunists. Strangely, though, Modiano opts to continue the story line for a few more chapters, w/ Guy seeeking out more information about the person who led them to this border crossing, and in a few very quick chapters he follows leads all the way to a South Pacific island where the trail goes cold. We don't need these chapters at all - and they completely break the noir, insular feeling of the novel - confined to the strange neighborhoods of Paris, most of them not changed since the war - with the "pastoral" alternative being Nice, where Guy's boss, Hutte, has retired and from where he provides via letter occasional updates about life in the sun of the South. (There are mysterious connections, too, between Hutte and some of the Russians in Paris - hinted at, like much in this novel, rather than dissected and developed.) Oddly, or perhaps it's not so odd, I had my own memory blackout and had completely forgotten the South Pacific chapters; would have sworn that the novel, which I first read about 2 years ago, ended in the snow on the Swiss border. Doesn't that tell you something?
Friday, December 30, 2016
Patrick Modiano's early novel Missing Person tells its story by indirection. On the surface, it's a detective story - the narrator, Guy (has assumed name) is in search of his own lost identity; his entire past is obliterated from his mind, and he has only a few clues to help him uncover the mystery of his life. He follows these clues, step by step, in an improbably chain of circumstance and coincidence - everyone he meets is willing to speak with him, they all seem to have a collection of old photos that they're willing to give to him, he hits no dead ends, etc. - that would derail this novel if it were meant to be a traditional detective story. But it's not. The cascade of clues and the linear plot guide us through a world of pre-war Paris, populated by night-club singers, bartenders and waiters, fashion photographers, artists and intellectuals, criminals, and emigres. As this world comes together, and as Guy finds various people who knew him in his prewar life but whom he doesn't recognize at all, we in turn recognize that this novel is about a national amnesia, about how France itself has erased its past, how, mysteriously, no one who survived the war is able to remember exactly how they did so. As this is a novel of indirection, Modiano drops only a few hints as to his real theme: Guy does learn that he worked in a foreign embassy of a Latin American country, he finds various pieces of correspondence about a fake Dominican passport and about the need to be able to cross borders. He also learns that his late wife - again, he has no actual memory of her or of their marriage, except what occurs to him in a few flashes - disappeared somewhere near the Swiss border (she had gone to the Alpine French village of Megeve). This is my 2nd time through the novel, so I know it will end with an attempt at another border crossing into Switzerland - but I think what we're seeing here are the outsiders, artists, and criminals in Paris looking for a way to survive; it's in a way the counterpoint to the few memoirs and novels of the experience of the exiled - Suite Francaise being the most recent to emerge, and probably the best.
Thursday, December 29, 2016
Returning to Patrick Modiano - specifically, his 1978 novel, Missing Person - in prep for book group this weekend; this book was my recommendation, and I'm pretty sure it was the first Modiano novel I read. Since then, I've read a dozen or so - all of them short, so that's not such a big accomplishment - and it's interesting what I bring back to this novel, how I view it differently from my first reading (I won't go back and read any of my posts from the first time around, with I think was in 2015). Of course, as noted in several previous posts, there are universal themes and variations on these themes that run through each of Modiano novels and that he establishes in this relatively early one (I couldn't have been aware of thematic consistency of his work), notably a character in search of people or a person from the past, the noirish post-war streets and neighborhoods of Paris, associations with night clubs and night life. The novels are like detective or mystery stories, but they don't exactly fit into that genre - particularly in that they never come to a true conclusion or resolution. The protagonist simply follows a chain of clues and references that often lead him (or her) deeper into a mystery. Missing Person is prototypical; in fact, I think it's the only Modiano novel in which the protagonist is actually a sleuth. It opens with the protagonist and narrator, Guy (a real name in French, but the pun in English, the anonymity of the narrator, must be intentional), meeting with his boss, who is closing down the detective agency and retiring to Nice, but leaves the office keys to Guy. Guy's case is: discovering his own identity, as he is the victim of complete and total amnesia. Following a series of clues, he comes to think that he may have been of Spanish nobility, he may have at one time been married to a night-club singer, and so on - coming no closer to the truth as he moves along. Of course perhaps more than any other Modiano novel this one is directly allegorical: his attempt to uncover a forgotten past is analogous to the French "amnesia" about the years of Occupation, the collaboration with the Nazis, the trauma induced upon the Jews, the small-time hood who made a killing on the black market - all of which Modiano touches on in this novel (and in others).
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Having finished the Shusaku Endo story collection The Final Martyrs, which covers about 30 years of his writing life, a few salient facts strike me: It's amazing how he returns repeatedly to the same material, using the material, generally in new and surprising ways, in story after story and in at least one novel (Deep River, the only one of his I've read): lonely childhood in occupied Manchuria, parental divorce, life as a devout Catholic in part of a once-persecuted minority, survival of the war through the fighting in Burma (will come back to this in a moment), affection for dogs and birds, loss of faith especially among Catholic priests, group-tour travel to Europe (and India, in the novel), death of brother, illness and aging. And what doesn't he treat?: marriage (though his narrators are married and seem to have a comfortable relationship with spouse, the marriages always seem pallid and are never the central element in the stories), the war as experienced in Japan (one exception, which I'll come back to), war guilt (never even touched as a topic as far as I have read). His stories, also, come as close to autobiographical essays as any I've encountered; I'm guessing he takes some liberties with names, time sequences, and invents details when he cannot recall the facts precisely, but he could probably identify these many of these pieces as essays and be none the worse off. The last 3 stoires in the collection offer a few new insights into Endo's work. The story about an alcoholic man who reluctantly visits a psychiatrist and confesses that he ate human flesh to survive the war (a theme treated in greater detail in Deep River) has an explicit religious context: the title is The Last Supper, so how can we miss the reference to eating the body, that the consumption of human flesh in order to survive is like a communion, giving life (or eternal life, as the case may be). The last story in the collection, The Box, tells of the efforts of the Japanese government during the war to spy on a group of Catholics who may have been engaged in seeking a peaceful resolution; the story itself is full of improbabilities - the narrator finds a box containing a cache of documents from the era, leading him to draw conclusions about the wartime spying - but it's a unique story in Endo's work in that it takes on the brutality of the Japanese secret police, a topic he largely overlooks.
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
Shusaku Endo's story The 60-Year-Old Man, in his collection The Final Martyrs, is so weird and unsettling that the only way to approach is with confidence that the eponymous narrator isn't Endo himself, despite the autobiographical tone and, to a degree, contents of the story. That is, the man shares traits Endo has established throughout this story collection and other works: a writer, married but without great passion, more of a working partnership, born in the 1920s, a Japanese Catholic who writes a lot about Catholicism, martyrdom, tests of faith. This narrator is also focused on the gradual decay of his body; he's recently undergone a lung transplant (no idea if this fact-checks with Endo himself) and realizes that his face looks worn and aged - he feels his mortality. He's ensconced in the small office he uses for his writing, and is working on a Life of Jesus, or, more accurately, on a revision of a Life of Jesus he'd completed two decades back; he believes as an older man he now has much greater insight into Jesus' suffering. His topic at the moment is: Why did the followers so suddenly and completely abandon Jesus before the crucifixion? As he writes, he takes long breaks in a nearby coffee shop, where he enjoys watching and eavesdropping on a group of teenage girls who gather there after school - and that's where the story becomes weird and unsettling. He focuses on one girl in particularl (she reminds him of a preteen in Dostoyevsky's The Devils who is raped - make of that what you will), and he begins meeting her at a park on the weekends (they meet at the same park bench where he and his wife sometimes sit) and asks her questions that become increasingly personal. The girl says that sometimes her friends will pick up older men and "do things" for them in exchange for gifts and money. She says she'd really like to have a better music collection, and he probes her: what we she do for him in return? Not only is this narrator acting immorally (and sinfully, he might add), but he is also acting illegally: at least in the States, he could be picked up and arrested for such a creepy come-on. But the narrator has no direct or evident understanding of the impropriety, to put it mildly, of his behavior. He thinks he's just enjoying watching and talking to the younger generation, gaining inspiration and confidence to continue his write. Where is Endo in this?
Monday, December 26, 2016
Another fine Shusaku Endo story ("Life" - had to look up the title) in his collection The Final Martyrs examines his childhood. Like so many of his stories this one seems to be autobiographical, though it's not a memoir and he structures the story like a work of fiction, with a strong narrative voice and overlapping layers of incident and imagery. Endo, and his narrator, lived in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the 1930s; his father had a professional job - in banking, I think - and this story (and at least one other in this collection) discuss the crumbling relationship between his parents, constant fighting that became more severe. In this story, Endo focuses on the boy's loneliness and isolation; he begins to do poorly in school, delays going home because he can't stand the constant marital warfare. Things begin to change when they hire a Manchurian teenager to work at petty wages as a "houseboy" (their Japanese servant left for home, fed up with the family fighting and perhaps w/ the mother's instability). This young man is protective of the much younger narrator; in a touching passages he walks the boy to school, sheltering him from a gusting snowstorm (while himself wearing tattered clothes unsuitable for the weather), and speaking to the boy in broken Japanese, encouraging him on his way. At one point, the child, in anger at his parents, steals a ring from his mother and sells it for a nominal sum, using the money to buy candy. As we can see from a mile a way, the houseboy gets blamed for the theft and tossed aside. The narrator is questioned about the missing ring, but never speaks up - and this memory haunts him throughout his life. The story - there are parallel elements as well, including an encounter with some Japanese soldiers bound for the fighting in central Manchuria, which the boy realizes much later means most of them would die - feels a lot like one of the great stories by William Maxwell, a story written as a form of confession, penance, or expiation - we know the boy did wrong, but we see his suffering. We pity, and we forgive.
Sunday, December 25, 2016
The Shusaku Endo story Going Home is a summary of the major Endo themes (outlined in yesterday's post) and brought together in a deftly interwoven narrative: Middle-aged man arranging for the burial of his brother in Catholic cemetery in Japan (this seems to follow from his earlier story, Adieu, about the illness of his older brother) learns that they will have to remove his mother's bones from plot, incinerate the remains, and rebury - pretty disturbing, especially in that he will be the one to pick up the bones (apparently they don't or did not use caskets for burial?). Returning from the cemetery, he hears of a dog chained and abused by its own, and he is urged to participate in a kidnapping scheme: grab the dog at night and bring it home and treat it w/ kindness. They bring about this heist, and then the story unfurls another strand, as the man travels to another part of Japan to do research for a book he is writing: He learns about a 16th-century Japanese man who became a Catholic priest and missionary in the Philippines, but who years to come home to Japan in his last years. He does so, is hunted down, takes to the woods, where he dies of exposure, but his wish for return to his native land fulfilled. The story then recedes like a wave - as we learn about the fate of the dog, escaped from the man's house and returned many miles to his original, abusive owner. And then the cremation of the mother's bones and the burial of the brother take place. So we see the key Endo themes (Catholic faith, love of animals, reverence for family) brought together into one macro theme: faith and persistence even against persecution, abuse, and even torture.
Saturday, December 24, 2016
Pulling together the strands of several key Endo stories (ones he selected for his collection of the best from across the course of his writing life, i.e., his life, for The Final Martyrs) plus the one novel of his I've read - Deep River - we can get an image of Endo himself - more so than with most fiction writers, as he examines time and again the same ideas and tropes, and he writes in what feels to be a semi-autobiographical manner: Endo, or "Endo," if you will, was born in Japanese occupied Manchruia; his parents had a difficult and loveless marriage, his mother was a complicated (and perhaps bipolar?) personality, and a devout Christian, in a land almost entirely Buddhist w/ a history of persecution of the Christian minority. His parents divorced, his mother died young, and Endo went to live w/ his father, newly married (with a child?), and had a very tepid relationship w/ his father. Did poorly in school, but somehow got on course to become a successful fiction writer; maintained his Catholic faith, but was frequently disillusioned - in particular by the priest closest to his mother, who had been a role model, but who abandoned the priesthood (this treated most fully in the story Shadows - which I think comes closest to the secret of Endo's life, that the priest had a romantic-sexual relationship with Endo's mother - the betrayal that truly challenged his faith). In his writing he is drawn to religious themes, particularly themes of testing of faith and maintaining faith through martyrdom. His marriage, from what we can infer, is cold and loveless, a marriage of convenience, and he finds much solace not from family but from animals, especially dogs and birds, in whom he sees human-like expression, particularly in their eyes: one of the characters on the journey to India in Deep River is much like this, as is the main character in several stories (e.g., The Fifty-Year-Old Main). In other words, his life has been productive, successful, yet said and incomplete in regard to relationships with other people, made up for to a degree by relationship to God, to the church, and communion with and empathy for animals, both wild and domesticated.
Friday, December 23, 2016
Reading a little further in Shusaku Endo after finishing the impressive novel Deep River; it seems a lot of his best work is in the short-story form, so picked up the collection The Final Martyrs, which covers his work over a span of about 30 years. In his short, insightful preface Endo writes that his stories create characters that go on living in his mind, and sometimes the characters and the materials of the short story go on to generate, years later, his novels. Yes, most writers will recognize this - we try out ideas in shorter forms first and then come to realize there's more to say about some of the characters and situations (sometimes the opposite is true: a fair # of novels really ought to be short stories), though few will carry it to the extreme of Endo, in which perhaps all of his novels originated in shorter form. From the first two stories - each of substantial length (more than most American literary magazines would take on) - we can see that a major theme throughout his work concerns the struggles of faith, particularly Christian faith in a largely Buddhist land, and martyrdom - definitely the theme of Deep River and we see it again in the title story and the 2nd story (Shadows, which I have not yet finished reading). The story The Final Martyrs concerns a group of Japanese Christians in the mid-19th century, just as Japan was opening to the West, and, though one might think this would lead to greater religious tolerance the opposite occurred (if this story is accurate historically): fearing dilution of Japanese customs and ideals, the government cracked down on Christian communities. In this story we see how the Christians on a remote village were imprisoned and tortured in efforts, mostly in vain, to get them to renounce their faith. The cruelty of the torturers is barbaric, but seems to be just an accepted fact of the era; most interesting is the despair of the martyrs, who begin to wonder what kind of god would want them to endure such torture in his name? Great question - one that Jews must have asked in the camps, one that traces back to the Book of Job, which gives to answer. The central character is the village coward, who in the end receives absolution, as his fellow prisoners tell him it's OK for him to be frightened. Small comfort, in my view. Faith, for Endo, is almost a compatriot of torture and suffering.
Thursday, December 22, 2016
Finished reading Patrick Modiano's Little Jewel (like most or maybe all of his novels, it's about 150 small pages, no more than a two-day read) and, as noted yesterday, this novel shares numerous themes and points of style with all of his other works, but there are a few ways in which Little Jewel differs (spoilers may follow, but you're not reading Modiano's novels for their plots). First, it's the only one I've read to date w/ a female protagonist and narrator - given that, it's surprising how much she (Therese, we do learn her name, I wasn't sure) shares with the typical Modiano male protagonist, to the point where at times I forgot she was a young woman - but particularly in the second half of the novel Modiano makes more of an effort to present and understand her as a woman, and not just a vehicle for his ideas, issues, and themes. We really begin to see the narrator as a woman when she takes a job as a babysitter for a mysterious and most likely criminal couple and, in a number of odd ways, she sees in the neglected child she is watching some of the trauma in her own life (to the point where we begin to wonder whether the child and her parents are real or a projection, delusion, or fantasy): parents moving from house to house, living above their means, changing names and identities, completely neglectful of their children, and, in one incident that recalls a specific trauma from Therese's childhood, the child's longing for a dog and the loss of the dog and the parent's indifference. Another way in which Little Jewel is unique or nearly so in Modiano's work: It comes closer than any of his other novels to a happy ending. "Happy, " for Modiano, is a relative term, as the mood throughout is dark and mysterious, but this novel concludes w/ the narrator giving up her obsession with finding out whether her mother is still alive, and with the narrator supported by two new friends, a girlfriend and a young man with whom she seems to be developing a romantic relationship. No other Modiano novel ends with the character gaining some kind of social inclusion. This relatively positive conclusion may have be a result of a slightly different political stance: Though Modiano includes a few oblique references that may link the vanished mother with the Nazi Occupation (e.g., Therese learns that her mother's nicknames was The Kraut - we don't know why), her sin against the child is a sin of neglect because of foiled ambition - her dancing career halted by a series of ankle injuries (another Modiano theme), not because she went into exile because of collaboration. In most Modiano novels the narrator's amnesia and search for the hidden truth obliquely references the "forgotten" Occupation years, but that's less so in Little Jewel - it's more of a story of an abusive, narcissistic, neglectful parent.
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
All Patrick Modiano novels are similar, which is part of what makes his work so great - it's as if his entire literary output, 20+ relatively short novels, constitutes a single, enormous master-work. Not that you'd want to read any such single work in one span - it helps that there's a year or so separating each Modiano publication, although we're seeing a cascade now of his work in English translation, following his 2014(?) Nobel Prize. Little Jewel, from 2001 and recently in English from Yale UP, is a case in point, with one striking difference: It may be the only one of his works w/ a female protagonist and narrator, the eponymous Little Jewel (La Petite Bijoux), the name her mother called her in youth (not sure we ever learn her actual name). As in most other Modiano novels, these are the element: a mysterious amnesia about events of childhood, with memories restored in adulthood by certain sensations, objects (such as a photograph, a scarp of writing, a small memento), a glimpse of an unfamiliar neighborhood); unusual Parisian and suburban locales, often near railroad stations, on the periphery of Paris, sometimes near odd landmarks (in this novel, near an amusement part and the training grounds for Paris mounted police) with man odd place names (all that I've bothered to check turn out to be real); abandonment by a parent during the war, often with the child's being shuttled off to relatives or family friends in the countryside; connections to nightclubs, dancers, and lurid entertainers; a possible parental connections to mobsters, particularly those who profited during the Occupation. I also note that the Occupation is always present even by its absence, as if the amnesia that characters experience and, over the course of each novel, that the try to eradicate through near-obsessive investigation of the past, is analogous to the national amnesia about complicity with the Nazis and the Occupation government. All this is present in Little Jewel, a prototypical Modiano novel, as the novel opens with the title character observing a woman at Metro station who looks exactly like her mother, whom she'd been told had died 12 years previously in Morocco; LJ follows the woman over the course of several days to learn about her, while she also takes on a job as a babysitter for a young couple who, like her mother, are transients who are bizarrely indifferent to the fate and well-being of their young daughter
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Yes the writing is powerful, each individual scene is harrowing, the setting is unusual and unfamiliar to most English-language readers, the theme is significant (Soviet domination of rural Hungary, the links to Nazism in the past and anti-Semitism in the present, the hypocrisy of a so-called class-less culture in which everyone seems to be thinking about whose ancestors were peasants and whose were more prosperous and sophisticated), in short everything I've posted recently about the last Szilard Borbely's novel The Dispossessed remains accurate - yet, 100+ pages in, there is not even the hope of an emerging narrative development or plot of any sort, and I cannot bear another 200 pages of this. Reading this novel, if you can do it, is akin to being immersed in the world of this novel, flat, dreary, unchanging, brutal, cruel. I get it, it's important to know such cultures existed, probably still exist, it's kind of amazing to think about how a child growing up in such a culture, as Borbely evidently did, could mature into a world-class writer. It's a warning against doctrinaire and totalitarian systems of government, which can be as brutal and inequitable as free-market governments, each oppressive in its own way, and a warning against making a fetish of the working class and the peasants (if such warnings are needed any more) - but by 100 pages, yes, I get it. I hate to be so pedestrian, but novels do need plot, some kind of narrative structure, an arc of development, a crisis that one of the characters or maybe all of the characters face and overcome, or don't. Immersion in hundreds of pages with the same notes on the same score can in fact produce a certain numbing stifling effect, which may well have been Borbely's intent, but after 100 pages of that any reader, I suspect, will want to come up for air.
Monday, December 19, 2016
Very good story this week in New Yorker double issue (ha, what a joke, it just means it's a 50-issue magazine rather than a weekly) from an author unknown to me and I suspect to most North American readers, Mariana Enriques. Good for her - the New Yorker has played a role in advancing the careers of many other writers, including Murakami and S.American Roberto Bolano (too late for him, sadly). It appears from the story that she may be a 40-something Argentine; in any event, the story takes place in what appears to be the 90s?, in northern Argentina and in Paraguay, at a time when those were really scary places, esp Paraguay under the Stroessner dictatorship, possibly the worst in the continent. The narrator, a woman probably in her 20s, tells her story with wit, precision, and honesty: her mother died in an accident (this is left intentionally and ominously vague) and in her period of mourning she married too hastily to a rich, nasty guy who she realizes now she doesn't love at all; at the urging of her aunt and uncle in northern Argentina, they come to visit - in part to intro him to the closest surviving relatives - and woman dreads this as she knows they won't like him at all - which turns out to be the case. With her attractive and independent cousin joining them, they drive into Paraguay to by some lace at an open-air market (her cousin makes cloths and coverings out of the lace). To Enriques's credit, this story does not go where you think it will - I'll leave it at that - and the trip to Paraguay is filled with threats and menace; over the course of the journey we come to detest the husband and to feel increasingly sad about the narrator trapped in this losing relationship - but she's strong and resourceful, so we don't exactly pity her. If there's a flaw in the story it's that the ending, to me, was too abrupt and perhaps incomplete or not fully realized; that said, the narration is so strong, the view of, for me, a different culture was so precise and credible that I'd put this up as one of the best New Yorker debuts in some time - and I expect we'll see more from her.
Sunday, December 18, 2016
Szilard Borbely's The Dispossessed continues to paint a harrowing portrait of life in a rural village in Hungary during the era of Soviet domination, and if that sounds like a rather cheerless read you're right, this is not beach reading and not likely ever to be made into a movie - it's dark and dismal, and if you can't take it don't go there. The book is about abject poverty (families subsisting for days or weeks on end on sandwiches of lard on bread, for example), alcoholism, meanness, cruelty (especially toward animals), all seen from the POV of a young boy, a strangely abstract narrator who at times seems and sounds naive, not quite understanding what's going on around him, in part because he has no point of comparison (unlike his elders, who always compare the current poverty with the old days when there were standards and values, or so they think); at other times though he seems to be an oddly omniscient narrator, which is to say that Borbely is more interested in documenting the living conditions of what seems to have been his childhood than in creating a consistent, literary narrative voice or stream of consciousness. One problem with the novel is that, now more than 1/3 of the way in, there's really no semblance of a plot - nothing happens, no developments, to crises or turning points, the characters just persist and endure. A theme that may be emerging, however, is the fear that the government will step in and close one of the collectives and everyone will have to move - which brings up, to the elders, memories of the days when there was a Jewish community in the region, and how the Jews suddenly "disappeared," obviously during the war and the Nazi occupation - at that time none of the Hungarians seemed to care much or notice, but now they're wondering if they could suffer the same fate, the same extermination. Not sure whether Borbely will develop this theme further, or if it will remain as noise in the background.
Saturday, December 17, 2016
Nobody in the U.S. has ever heard of him, but this novel, The Dispossessed, by the Hungarian author Szilard Borbely (minus the accents, sorry) has gotten some attention this year and, so far, though I'm only a few chapters in, it seems to be well-deserved attention (which won't help Borbely, as he died a few years ago at the age of about 50). The novel is set in a remote, rural section of Hungary, and begins in the 1960s or so, in the heart, or maybe depths, of Soviet domination, and is narrated from the POV of a young boy (perhaps closely modeled on Borbely, I'm not sure), with all the attendant limitations of perspective: he doesn't understand much of the social and familial tensions all around him. He lives with his mother and two siblings; his father initially had a job at the "collective," which took up almost all of his day and evening, and the men would all gather at the tavern nightly and drink themselves into sickness and oblivion. Much of the family life involves the mother scraping together meager meals, trying to maintain cleanliness in a dirt-floor house, selling a few eggs for pocket money - and in the evening sending the children to the tavern to drag home the dad. He eventually loses that job - as it's told from the child's viewpoint, we're not sure why - whether too much drinking, or the failure of the collective itself is unclear - and eventually lands a job controlling the water flow into the new rice fields - a big Soviet project (why do we suspect this will be another diasaster?). The title seems to refer to the sense of many families, such as this one, that belief they once were prosperous landowners and the state has taken away from their all the property and status - the narrator's mother feels this way, and is scornful of her husband's family and all of the villagers, whom she considers to be dirty peasants. The leveling of society under Soviet rule, it seems, has exacerbated class tensions, not alleviated or eliminated them. The personality of the child his gradually emerging - as we see that he has nightmares, bed-wetting episodes, and is strangely obsessed w/ primary numbers. So far, this novel seems like a solid and informative examination of a society in troubled times, told with a compelling narrative voice and developed through the lives of the central characters.
Friday, December 16, 2016
OK so the ending of Shusaku Endo's Deep River is a little melodramatic as the various plot strands - each strand is the story of a "seeker," as if the Japanese tour group visiting Japan is analogous to a holy pilgrimage, with each pilgrim on a different quest for spiritual fulfillment - converge on the banks of, or in the water of, the Ganges(the literal Deep River of the title, but the title also represents the need for a spiritual crossing, from the material to the spiritual, from sin to salvation). But it's still a well-constructed plot, despite the several narrative threads - a man (Isobe) hoping to encounter the re-incarnation of his wife, a woman hoping to find the holy man whom she had tormented in their youth, the man (Otsu) hoping to find salvation while maintaining his role as Catholic priest but serving the most ill and impoverished people in India (he's the only one not on the tour of Japan), an author of children's books trying to understand why he writes about talking birds and other animals (and not about people), a war veteran hoping to heal the psychological wounds of his fighting in Southeast Asia, an oblivious newly wed husband hoping to become a great photographer and indifferent to the feelings and beliefs of those whom he photographs (this strand developed a little too late in the novel, in my view). To Endo's great credit, he doesn't build this toward a happy ending in which everyone finds fulfillment - there's tragedy at the end, and disappointment, but also, for some of the character, renewed hope and comprehension. Throughout, there is much talk about religion and spirituality in all forms and in multiple faiths, as one might expect in a serious novel about visitors to India. In some ways, it's like an Asian version of A Passage to India - some of the characters finding the beauty of the land, and others retreating in despair. All told, a pretty impressive novel by an author little known in the U.S. to date - but who perhaps will find new readers in that Scorsese directed an adaptation of another Endo novel, Silence - which I think is also about themes of faith and self-abnegation.
Thursday, December 15, 2016
S Endo's Deep Water, about a group of Japanese tourists who visit India, each on his or own spiritual quest, is not at all to be confused w/ works such as that "charming" movie the Great Marigold Hotel, or whatever it was called, in which the English visitors arrive, each w/ various prejudices and expectations, and at first they're overwhelmed by the poverty and the chaos, but by the end the chosen few fall in love w/ India (and with each other) while, as if in a miracle, the crowds and poverty kind of disappear! No - Endo's novel is stubborn and dark; I'm not quite at the end, but we can see (or so I think) how the Japanese visitors will be moved by India, but frustrated in their quests and attempts at closure. Did we really expect that the widowed businessman, Isobe (whose wife told him with her dying breaths that she was sure she would be re-incarnated and pleaded w/ him to search for her) would find her in the personage of a 4-year-old village girl? No, he arrives at the village, the children make fun of his inability to communicate, he learns that the child (who had made some news by talking about a previous life) and her family have moved to a big city - end of story - and he drowns his sorrows in whiskey. Similarly, the woman in search of the young student she'd tormented in college days who now is a Catholic priest - finds that he has left the church - his views on religion are pantheistic and therefore heretical - and is helping the most impoverished of people with death ceremonies at the Ganges. Perhaps in the concluding chapters some of the characters will have their meet-ups, but it's apparent that any resolution to their various spiritual crises will come from within, from their own advancing self-knowledge, and not via divine absolution or miraculous conversion.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Maybe not Dickens’s most nearly perfect novel (Great Ex?) nor his most personal (DC?) but probably his best incorporation of great plot, complex characters, and social commentary.
The Great Gatsby
Fitzgerald is completely different from Dickens, but this more than any other has a perfectly constructed plot, “round” characters, and beautiful writing throughout.
Jude the Obscure
Hardy’s darkest work, which is saying something. Sad throughout, with a harrowing conclusion.
The Late George Apley, by John P. Marquand
Sadness seems to be a theme this year. This novel from the 1930s isn’t read much today, but it stands up well after nearly a century – cool, dispassionate anatomy of a life of missed opportunities. Part of the beauty comes from our awareness of how much the narrator misses about Apley as he tries to burnish Apley’s sorrowful life.
Pride and Prejudice
Austen’s novel remains the pinnacle of achievement among the novels of manners and social romances. Every word is so well chosen, peach ersonality is so vivid, every bit of dialogue is so smart.
Honorable mentions: The Warden and Barchester Towers, by Trollope, and, from the 1950s, Owls Do Cry, by Janet Frame
A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson
Yet another novel about Britain and World War II? Yes, but this one rivals Atonement as one of the best on this well-trodden ground. A portrait of a whole family, over the span of a century – and much more readable than its companion volume (Life After Life).
A Manual for Cleaning Women, stories by Lucia Berlin
A posthumous publication of a lifetime’s collection of stories by an author whose life (and art) often touched on despair. Not many stories take up these themes with such confidence and courage.
My Struggle, Volume 5, by Karl Ove Nausgaard
His struggle continues, as he goes to college, studies writing, takes some hard knocks, begins at last to find succeess in writing and in relationships, and then embarks down various passages of self-destruction.
Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish
An incredibly powerful, tragic novel about two social outsiders – a combat veteran suffering PTSD and a Chinese immigrant without documentation – who try to make a life togther against great odds.
So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, by Patrick Modiano
More works from this French Nobel winner appear (in English) seemingly every month. All of his novels are short, and all treat overlapping themes and motifs – largely, life in Occupied Paris and in contemporary Paris in the shadow of French collaboration. You could begin reading his work almost anywhere, but this one (from 2014) is a good place to start. Also read this year: a collection of his first 3 novels (the Occupation Trilogy) and a collection of 3 of his novels from the 1990s (Suspended Sentences).
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
Endo's novel Deep River is a finely crafted and surprisingly compelling look at the most profound of spiritual issues - a novel about characters in a time of spiritual crisis, examining how they pass through their crises, or don't. It's a Canterbury Tales kind of novel, in a way, as we are with a group of Japanese tourists visiting India, each with his or her own reason for joining the tour, each with his or her own reactions to the difficulties, the exoticism, and the beauty of India. Each chapter is like short story - I think each could stand alone if need be (and I'm not surprised to see that many of Endo's books in translation are in fact story collections) - but the stories tie together by a common thematic thread and by inter-actions among the characters and some narrative development over the course of the novel. The spirituality eluded me at first, but shouldn't have - even the title, as we see in an epigraph, is from an American spiritual. Among the various spiritual pursuits: probably the main character, Isobe, who himself is nonreligious, hears from his dying wife that she is sure she will be reborn, and urges him to seek for her; this leads him to finding info from an American med school about research into rebirth, and he is heading to India to meet with a young woman who claims to have led a past life. The woman who was a volunteer aide taking care of Isobe's wife, as noted in yesterday's post, feels guilt about her youthful tormenting of a young man, Otse, bound for the Catholic priesthood; from his correspondence she (and we) learn that he has not fit in well with the Catholic church as he recognizes the power or all religions - he has been transferred to a monastery in India, and she is in search of him. Another character recounts fighting in Burma during the 2nd World War - it's interesting to read of the suffering of the Japanese troops; we have had a lot of literature about the suffering that the Japanese perpetrated, such as The Narrow Road to the Deep North - and he seeks some spiritual absolution for a friend who suffers guilt over some of the steps they had to take to survive; he goes to India to learn more about the multi-religious culture. A young couple on the tour do nothing but complain about the poor conditions and accommodations. What will happen to them? And another man, an author of children's books about talking animals, is there to observe the bird sanctuaries - like all of the main characters, he suffered and was isolated in youth; as an adult, he has received solace from pet birds. So - lots of strands developed, and we feel we're in the hands of an expert writer who will draw these strands together.
Monday, December 12, 2016
Started reading Shusaku Endo's 1994 novel Deep River - he's one of those world writers whose name keeps coming up but whom I'd never read and I guess I was prompted to do so by the NYT story about Scorcese adapting his novel Silence (which was not available in my small local library) - and find the narrative complex and compelling; despite its twists and jumps in time and POV, his writing even in translation is crystal clear and emotionally powerful. The first (long) chapter tells of a middle-aged man whose wife is dying of cancer; he's taciturn and serious, not one for excessive communication or expression of emotion. He tries to keep the diagnosis from his wife, but of course she recognizes that she's dying. In her last moments she tells him she is sure she will come back as another consciousness and begs him to look for her. This declaration is alien to everything he's thought or believed - he's a conventional Tokyo businessman - but he will try. In the next chapter we see him with a group of Japanese tourists soon to embark on a visit to India, getting information from their tour guide; as it happens, a woman on the tour was a volunteer aide who cared from his late wife in her last days. Then in Chapter 3 we learn her story: in youth she was a wealthy, attractive, and entirely mean student in a Catholic university in Japan (Tokyo?). Urged by some of her friends, she agrees to taunt a fellow student, an awkward, homely, extremely devout innocent; she fools the young man into thinking she's interested in him, prompts him to get drunk (and ill), urges him to give up his daily attendance at prayers, dares him to denounce Christ. Ultimately, she leads him on sexually for a few days and then tells him to get lost. Later, she marries a crass, brash businessman and they go on a disastrous honeymoon to Paris; she learns that the young man she'd taunted is now a priest in Southern France, goes to visit him, and he in a sense thanks her for mistreating him - which, he says, led to his renewed faith, as he understood that he'd renounced Jesus but Jesus would never forsake the wayward. That's about 25 percent of the novel; very promising beginning.
Sunday, December 11, 2016
Joseph O'Neill is the author of the excellent and deservedly successful NY novel Netherland, and he's been trying to find a footing since that novel took us by storm - following up on an initial success is a problem for so many writers and of course a problem many other writers would with to have - so it was good to see his appearance in current NYer with the oddly titled story Pardon Edward Snowden. There are some impressive things in this piece, not the least of which is its timeliness. I can't really think of any other recent NYer story that so seamlessly incorporated not just the present zeitgeist but current events: he writes about Dylan's receiving the Nobel Prize, which means this story went from concept to publication in just a few weeks. Sweet. As to the story, it's one of professional jealousy among contemporary poets: The protagonist receives an invite from a fellow poet to sign a "poetition" seeking pardon for Snowden; the petition written in the form of a poem - we don't see it whole, but it seems to be drivel, and it certainly raises the wrath of the recipient, who makes a date to meet with a fellow poet to discuss whether he should sign - she has not received the invite, which leads to various speculations about whether the omission was an oversight or a diss (she'd "showed up" to poetitioner at a recent reading). We get the idea: the politics among pro poets are petty - because their world is so small, the stakes are so low, and the difference between fame and obscurity is ineffable (and sometimes political). The highlight of the piece are some snippets of verse - O'Neill is a great satirist; the lowlight is how little sympathy we feel for the main character. Really? You have a career that entails writing a poem or two a year and scribbling down your "ponsees" and you're biggest worry is whether you should endorse a cause in order to see your name appear (in an ad) in the NY Times? I also have to say that I hope O'Neill is being satirical in presenting the protagonist's jealous diatribe against Dylan's receiving the Nobel; crass behavior aside, isn't it obvious that this was the best thing the Nobel committee has done in decades, recognizing the world's greatest living artist and putting an end to the false dichotomy between written, spoken, or sung lyrics - it's all one, it's all literature, and to suggest that Dylan's lyrics don't read well on the page misses the whole point of the unified field of literature.
Saturday, December 10, 2016
It's informative to compare the two endings of Platonov's novel from the 1930s (first published in Russian in the 1990!), Soul: in one, the 40 or so people in the "nation," better word might be tribe, that Chagataev is trying to lead back to their homeland, scatter in all directions, leaving their small settlement in the middle of the night. Chagataev realizes they have left and he goes, with the one remaining member of the tribe, the young girl Aydim, to Moscow where he seems ready to settle into a new life for himself, perhaps establishing a relationship with the daughter (by another marriage) of his late wife (much is left amibiguous at the end, and throughout). In the other ending, apparently revisions Platonov made in the 30s, perhaps with the aim of giving his novel a better chance at publication, Chagataev sets out into the desert to find the members of the tribe, leaving Aydim alone - for months, as it turns out! - to maintain the small settlement. He endures further adventures, including buying a young woman and having sex w/ her and then paying for her to live in a small apartment for a few weeks as he continues his travels, which end up extending for months (throughout, he is blase about the fate of others, especially the women he leaves behind, even though his treatment of them when he's with them is tender and affectionate). Eventually, he comes back to the settlement and finds that most of the tribe has returned and, under Aydim's leadership, they are thriving. He then returns to Moscow (picking up the last chapter from the original ending). So the 2nd, revised version is more optimistic - particularly about the Soviet values of collective labor. This more uplifting ending is also more satisfying to the contemporary reader, as it brings the main course of the narrative to a conclusion - though neither ending is exactly credible in a realistic sense: Why would the members scatter in the middle of the night? And if they did, why would they all return? Platonov is not a realistic writer, nor does he mean to be: this narrative is a miniature epic of a journey to salvation, in the religious and spiritual sense, which may of course be why Stalin called Platonov's writing "scum" and why Soul was never published in P's lifetime.
Friday, December 9, 2016
Surprisingly, Chagataev leads the band of 40 or so people from the Soul "nation" to a safe place, concluding their trek across the desert to re-settle in or near their homeland. He settles the tribe, then sets of on what looks to be a 3-day hike to the nearest village for supplies (he figures hec an make the journey w/ no food - it's only 3 days!), but he comes back sooner than expected: a group of vehicles that the Soviet government had dispatched to find the wandering tribe and help them settle cross paths with Chagataev - so he returns with food, medicine, building materials, tools, etc. Putting aside all of the improbabilities here - the likelihood that the Soviets would care about or even be aware of a group of 40 people wandering in the desert and the likelihood of them coming across these wanderers in the vast expanse of the central desert - it looks as if Platonov's novel, Soul, his heading toward some kind of peaceful resolution. But, no, this is a tale of suffering. They - which is to say almost entirely Chagataev and the young girl, Aydim, make bricks from clay and build 4 shelters, and as winter sets in the entire tribe sleep huddled together in one of the buildings. At one point, the tribe sleeps for 2 days and nights straight - we're seeing a little foreshadowing of magic realism here - and one night Ch's elderly mother dies. He sleeps in one of the outbuildings, and then makes plans to bury his mother - when Aydim discovers, from a vantage point, that the entire tribe has left the settlement, heading off in different directions across the desert landscape. There's really no way to explain this except symbolically or allegorically: Platonov is not writing realism (though the novel is narrated in a realistic manner - with spirits, ghosts, supernatural creatures, sci fi - compare this with the far more fantastical Master and Margarita, for ex.) - but what exactly does the Soul nation represent or signify? The failure of the Soviet vision for collectivism, perhaps. Or, on a more cosmic level, perhaps the need for personal connection to overcome the vast sense of loneliness and emptiness in modern life. Any reader will be struck by the frequent references to physical contact throughout the novel: people huddled together like sheep, keeping warm, touching; even in the most dire conditions, people having sex, sometimes furtively, sometimes not. And then there's the incredible, irrepressible drive toward life and survival - doing anything for water and nourishment. Still think it might make a good movie - though a painful one - and still wondering if Ch. will connect back to his life in Moscow in any way - he's learned that his wife has died, and her daughter from an earlier marriage, on whom he had a crush, seems to endure.
Thursday, December 8, 2016
Platonov's novel Soul becomes a journey into the heart of darkness, or, more accurately, in the a vast expanse of emptiness. The novel begins in Moscow at a graduation ceremony then then follows the course of the protagonist, Chatagaev, as he is dispatched by the Soviet government to the remote area - in Uzbekistan it seems - where he was born, to bring Soviet "prosperity" to the impoverished people of his nation. His people are a small tribe called "Soul." On his arrival, he encounters another Soviet agent, Nur-Muhammed, whose mission is to lead this wandering tribe of people back to its native land, in western Uzbekistan on the edge of the desert, it seems. He assembles all the living members of Soul only about 50 people, most of them elderly and infirm, and sets off on a trek across the desert that becomes the central event of this novel, a trek of such horror and deprivation that it seems almost though not quite surreal (Platonov treats it as quire realistic, dreamlike - but not absurd or hallucinatory), close in style and content to, say Cormac McCarthy. The people are so starved and parched that they literally eat damp sand; they survive by occasionally killed a bird and eat the flesh raw. Nur-Muhammed turns out to be a liar and thief: he has sex with a preteen girl on the trek, and his plan is to lead the whole clan into Afghanistan where he can sell them into slavery and live a life in luxury. As N-M's betrayal becomes more evident, Chatagaev has to stop him. One one level, then, this is a novel of adventure, could make a good if harrowing movie perhaps; on another, it's a political document, Platonov's attempt to show the horrible conditions in the remote Soviet states and the absurdity of preaching to these people the greatness of Stalin and the corruption of the Soviet bureaucracy. And on another - the journey is religious and spiritual, with obvious references to the Biblical wandering of the Jews and perhaps to stories of the struggle between good and evil, leading to salvation (or damnation). I'll have to figure out the significance of this religious-spiritual strand as I finish reading then novel - but there are many passages reflecting on the unity of all life, an Eastern spiritualism at the foundation of this strange novel.
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Interesting and unusual Sam Shepard story, Tiny Man, in current New Yorker - we know Shepard can write, and act, and here he's showing his chops as a fiction writer as well in a first-person narrative told from later-life perspective about a preteen boy in the far West living w/ his taciturn and possibly alcoholic father. The story concerns his father's sexual relationship with a teenage girl: in one scene (the story is broken into scenes, each with a subtitle - but don't mistake this for a drama manque) the boy witnesses as his father has aggressive sex with the girl (Felicity) and she screams so loud that the landlady - they're in a boarding house - checks to see if someone's being killed. In a later scene, the boy leaves the boarding house, disturbed by and confused about his father's sexuality, and when he returns his father's being arrested and screamed at by a lady in a long pink coat (he later surmises she was Felicity's mother and his father was arrested for statutory rape). Following the arrest, they relocate to a remote Western town where his father works in feedlot; Felicity, somehow, continues to visit - the father is never home when she shows up, and eventually the boy has sex with her. This leads him to deep confusion about her, about his father, about their love and rivalry, and about his own dawning sexual drives. Interspersed with these knife-edged chapters narrated w/ vivid yet detached realism are scenes of what we learn are the boy's - now the adult's - dreams and fantasies about his father, whom he envisions as a doll-sized corpse wrapped in Saran and toyed with the a group of 4 Mafiosi; make of this symbolism what you will (Shepard gives us no guidance on that). As noted, it's a strange story that feels confessional (which it may not be at all) in an unconventional narrative style, elusive yet moody, easy to read, hard to fully comprehend, as with most great art.
Tuesday, December 6, 2016
Andrey Platonov's novel Soul is so strange - it is both stunningly realistic, a near-documentary account of the extreme poverty in the desert states in the Soviet Union in the 1930s (and maybe much later) and surreal, dreamlike, mystical. The crux of the novel is the journey of the protagonist, Chatagaev, a young economist sent by the central government back to his homeland in what is now Turkmenistan (I think), a land he had escaped from in childhood when set on the road by his mother and told to keep walking. Now he's back with the goal of bringing the Soviet message and some level of prosperity to the impoverished region - much like a Peace Corps worker it seems - and his journey farther and farther into the remote desert regions unfolds like a dream: the descriptions of the sand wastes and the boggy marshes where people subsist on soups of boiled grass and the smoke-choked yurts and tents, just astonishing, and strangely beautiful. His encounters are equally strange and disturbing: he and the mystic priest, Sufyan, with whom he is traveling, come upon a blind man and his young daughter; the man wants to trade the daughter for an old woman or a she-ass (!); Chatagaev proposes that he take the daughter and will later send back an old woman. The blind man says OK and the off she goes; in realistic terms this seems frightening, abusive, criminal - but in the terms of this strange novel they are saving the girl from a terrible fate. Later, Chatagaev comes across an enfeebled old woman and, lo and behold, it's his mother whom he hasn't seen since early childhood. In another novel, that will seem and feel like pure manipulation of plot elements, a Dickensian melodramatic trick - but not at all in this novel, where the sudden encounter feels like an experience from within a dream. It's easy to see why this novel troubled - and puzzled - the Soviet censers of the era: it's by no means a traditional view of the enlightened and noble peasants. Rather, they live in poverty and misery and nobody, and no government, can bring help - the only solace seems to be a mystical yearning (for love, for lost youth), and the state seems a force of separation (of married couples) and dominance rather than of liberation and strength.
Monday, December 5, 2016
Platonov's Soul continues to be a surprising and intriguing book. The protagonist, Chatagaev - turns out he's a young economist, not an engineer - is sent to a very remote region in what I think is Turkmenistan, the land of his birth, with the vague mission of bringing to the people of this desert land the prosperity of the Soviet state and the image of "Uncle Joe" Stalin. Obviously these are two missions doomed to failure. As Chatagaev approaches the land of his birth he increasingly senses how the people have virtually no knowledge about their government and no need to have any knowledge; they are just peasants and desert herdsmen living from day to day and completely indifferent to anything happening in Moscow - days or weeks away by train and light years away by comprehension. Ch embarks on a 14-day overland journey to get to his assigned area; he has vague recollections and memories of the land of his childhood, mainly remembering his mother sending him away with almost no provisions and hoping he would make it to some kind of civilization and to a possibly better life (which he did). Along the way he meets a Sufi mystic - who actually claims to recognize Ch - and they travel together, leading a nearly emaciated camel that Ch came across and nursed to health. But they have little food or sustenance among them. One night they camp out near a cave, and in the morning Ch wakes to see the camel dead - and the Sufi gorging on its inner organs. He joins. It's intentionally unclear whether the camel died and the Sufi harvested the innards or whether the Sufi killed the camel - part of his mystical sense that all life is one, that eating another for sustenance keeps the same balance of life in place. They continue on - and we suspect Ch will be transformed by his mission to his homeland in unforeseeable ways and no doubt ways that did not find him favor with the Soviet authorities of the 30s.
Sunday, December 4, 2016
I'm not sure what led me to pick up a novel by the late Soviet writer Andrey Platonov - mentioned somewhere in NYTBR I think, but who reads him, who's even heard of him? - and have to say I'm very impressed by first 4 chapters of Soul - apparently written in the 1930s (when he was in his 30s - lived roughly 1900 to the 50s) but also apparently unpublished in his lifetime. One point to recommend it is that Stalin called his writing a load of crap. Hm, because at least superficially this novel is an endorsement of the Soviet ideology and of Stalin in particular - but that's superficially, on a deeper level we see a lot of the suffering and inequity in the USSR and we see at least a hint of Stalin's demagoguery. The opens w/ a young man arriving at the graduation celebration for his graduate-school class - some kind of engineering college in Moscow; he's a bit of a loner, somewhat cynical, he notices a very homely woman, fellow graduate, who is having a miserable time and trying hard not to show it; he asks her to dance, they spend the rest of the evening together, in very Russian fashion walking the streets and talking till dawn. He pushes her to invite him into he small and dingy apartment; she tells him she can't have sex because she's pregnant - the baby's father is dead - and he (Chataguev, I think?) suggests that they go to city hall and marry the next day. Then we learn his back story: he's from a remote state on the steppes, dire poverty, his mother - whom he believes is probably long gone - pushed him out of the house and sent him, a very young child, on his own heading for the city or anywhere else where he might have a chance to survive. Thus, we see the incredible poverty, broken families, suffering - but on the other hand he got beyond that, managed to get to the city and earn a valuable degree. But what will become of him? He is assigned to go back to the state of his birth and try to work w/ the mixed ethnic groups that runt he culture there - the name for these groups is the title of the novel - and bring them into the Soviet fold; he leaves wife, Vera, and her children behind as he sets off. All told efficiently and with some startlingly beautiful passages - making this a very inviting novel about a culture that in some ways feels almost ancient and in others still extant.
Saturday, December 3, 2016
Yes, I get it, over the course of A Man Called Ove we are expected to come to like him more, as we learn more about the misfortunes of his life and how he overcame them and how we watch him grow into a many who can work together with his neighbors to avert some sort of societal injustice or disaster - all well and good and will probably make a very cute, feel-good movie (even in my discomfort w/ this novel I flagged many funny passages and scenes, all of which I think would work even better on screen), but I honestly don't buy into it - the feel-good narration is too manipulative, not an organic or likely course of character development (by coincidence, contrast this w/ the character development of the Casey Afleck character in the recent and much darker Manchester by the Sea, who also suffers loss by fire and becomes an isolate, mean drunk, difficult character but who grows in ways that are surprising, significant, yet not sentimental or superimposed for dramatic effect of happy resolution). Yes, people can grow and change - but they can also be narrow-minded bigots or (and) staunch believers in the power of the individual and distrustful of any action for the social good (Ayn Rand, DH Lawrence, others come to mind?) and the transition from one to the other is rare at best. I can understand the success of A Man Called Ove as it brings a message so many would like to hear and embrace. But is it real? Or thin air?
Friday, December 2, 2016
The eponymous man called Ove rails against what he calls the "white shirts," which signifies anyone in government or authority. The great tragic event in his life was the loss of the house he'd built w/ his own hands - the independent, strong man, the "idea" - by fire, mainly caused because the white shirts had some weird law or regulation that prevented them from extinguishing the fire. Now I know there's a lot of regulation in Sweden, but really that is pretty ridiculous on any level - but falls right into what appears to be the author's, that is, Fredrik Backman's, ideology. I know nothing about Backman, btw, except what I've read in this book, but he seems to be driven by some romantic attachment to quiet, serious, self-sufficient, strong men and a hatred against the educated and in particular against any regulation that restricts the power and autonomy of the individual. Ove is a mean and nasty old man full of prejudices and irrational bias, and over the course of the novel we are supposed to, first, sympathize w/ him because he's been victimized by society, and, second, come to like him as a lovable outsider and be proud of him for overcoming his prejudice and befriending his neighbors, in particular the Asian immigrant next door. But he's not a lovable character, the story of his life does not jibe w/ what he's become - he had a loving father (who died too young but left Ove w/ a find moral upbringing), a great marriage to a smart and sensitive and thoughtful woman, and, yes, of course he's in mourning for her, but that does not explain what appears to be a lifelong condition of irascibility. W/out being too blunt about it, people like Ove, narrow-minded and prejudiced and resentful of others and disdainful of the government (until they need it) are all too familiar in America. Sorry to learn - I actually knew this already - that there are plenty of these types in Sweden as well.
Thursday, December 1, 2016
What is really starting to bother me about the eponymous Ove in Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove is not only his crankiness and misanthropy, which tend to lead to some pretty funny scenes and stretches of dialogue, and not only is self-pity, which is at least giving the narrative some shape, as Ove tries, twice now, to kill himself, presumably to join his late wife in some less contentious afterlife (is that really believable? he does not in any way seem clinically suicidal - it's just a narrative device), but his reactionary political views - not that they're ever expressed overtly, they're just part of the atmosphere he breathes. Bottom line, in Ove's view anything collective, anything done by society or, worse, the government, is bad, evil, a corruption of the social fabric; the only good action is that by an individual, preferably an isolate living by his own strict moral code, as is and does Ove. But the tenants' association? Bad. Unions? Bad. Schooling? Bad. Immigrants? Very bad. (One "lovable" quirk is that Ove hates anyone who drives a BMW - as opposed to a Swedish car, of course - this takes a nasty nativist message and makes it "cute.") I can probably find many more and better examples as I read along. Of course Ove is living in a country where the society at large is concerned about the welfare of all. He may sit on his high horse and hate the government but you can be sure he's benefiting from strong labor laws, great national health services, great national pension system. I don't know anything about author Backman, but suspect there's at least a part of him in Ove (that's true of every character by every author, to varying degrees), and hoping it's not the political part.
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
I'm not expecting deep and complex character development in A Man Called Ove, no more than I expect character development in all but a very few films - and this novel is close to a screenplay in ova (ha) - but it's not exactly an action story, either - the title alone tells you it's a study in character. Part of understanding a literary character is getting a sense of where they came from, what forces built their personality, the back story, in other words, and Backman gives us in summary form Ove's back story: difficult childhood in some regards, mother died when he was quite young and father died when he was 16, leading Ove to abandon school - though he like and was good at math - and take a lifetime job as a railroad mechanic, a job at which he performed very well (as did his father before him) until he was made redundant, as the English say, just before the outset of this novel. What we see about his father was that he was an honorable, honest, hard-working man and a devoted dad; Ove inherited some of that - he was clearly a great worker and lived by his father's code of honor - we don't rat on people, and we don't fight. So I wonder what makes the adult Ove such a crank? He seems, from his childhood, as if he'd become a respected and well-liked retiree, but no - he fights with everyone, holds all kids of garden-variety prejudices and biases, is blunt in his expression of same, and comes very close to hanging himself in his apartment until interrupted - comic relief! - by some neighbors at the door. So there's a disconnect - how did he go from point a to point b, what happened that made him such a grouch and misanthrope? We do know that he deeply loved his recently deceased wife, thought she was too good for him - she must have tempered some of his eccentricities. But it's the eccentricities that make this novel; to the extent that it has a narrative shape at all, it will clearly be about his building relationships with the neighbors whom he holds in contempt, which is to say all of them. I don't know why they put up w/ him, honestly; maybe that's a Swedish thing (or a movie thing), but I think most Americans would ignore him at best and at worst be afraid of him, his temper and distemper.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove is a best seller and, well, it reads like one: story of a curmudgeon nearing 60 recently widowed getting by on his own in a what seems to be a townhouse somewhere in the middle of Sweden, cranky with everyone he meets but in such an over-the-top way that you kind of feel for him and recognize that he's needy and lonely and entertaining in his irascibility. First scene shows him buying a computer in an Apple story and arguing with the sales force about what he should (or shouldn't) buy: laptop? ipad (he calls it an opad), etc. - he doesn't understand even the basic terms and his about 5 generations removed from the sales force (question why he would be buying an Apple if he's so ignorant re how to use it; also recognize that Backman may have taken an editor's advice and moved this scene, out of sequence, into the first pages of the novel, because it's pretty funny). Story meanders on as Ove gets angry while replacing a wall hanging - how can some people not even care the right way to do home repairs?, he mutters - and then into a confrontation with a new neighbor who damages his siding and mailbox while backing up a trailer. The new neighbors are Eastern immigrants; they have two cute kids who come over the provide Ove with an Asian rice dish. Grumble, grumble. Can you predict where this novel is going? Might we take a wild guess that this family will change Ove, and he will come to, grudgingly, love the children? Did I mention that this is soon to be a movie? Are you surprised? All that said, it's a sweet story and easy to read and, in part out of interest in Sweden, I'll stay w/ it.
Monday, November 28, 2016
George Eliot lived up to expectations and showed why she was a great writer in the sorrowful conclusion to Daniel Deronda - with DD at last married to Mirah, as they head to the East to carry the message of her late brother, Ezra/Mordecai - DD will be a prophet calling for a homeland for the Jewish people (about a century before his time). Note how this is the inversion of the famous conclusion to the great, near-contemporary American classic, Huck Finn, with the character heading out for the territories - but in this case heading East, and not to get away from civilization but to imbue himself with a new (and very old) culture. At the same time Eliot concludes the far more emotional, touching, and subtle element of the plot: Gwendolen's facing widowhood, her future, and her solitude. She was sure that she and DD would marry - based on her attraction to him, not his to her, and on her supreme self-confidence, but she learns at the end that, though she has sacrificed much in her life, entering a loveless marriage so as to provide for her mother, she is not entitled to happiness just by fiat; we have seen her mature, suffer, and come out the stronger - but not in a classic romantic way. It's as if Eliot glimpsed at that future for Gwendolen - Eliot could have taken the easy path and married her off, if not w/ DD then with her cousin Rex, who fades into the woodwork by the end of the novel, but Eliot took a bolder and more unconventional - and more credible course. Finishing Deronda, I read some of FR Leavis's writing on Eliot in his classic The Great Tradition: On the one hand, very pleased to say that my reading was entirely in accord with, if less extreme than, his sense of the novel, which he divides into Good Eliot (the Gwendolen section) and bad Eliot (DD sections) - even refers to it as two distinct novels, DD and Gwendolen Harleth. Like Leavis, I found some of the writing about the Jewish themes leaden, and much of the dialogue just awful -- DD's, Mirah's, and especially Ezra/Mordecai's. That said, I got very frustrated with Leavis, whose entire focus is on determining whether this or that novel, this or that author, is "great" - he's full of opinions, and very learned, with amazing # of novels at his fingertips. But really, isn't there more to criticism than ranking and rating books? He has very little to say about the substance of the novel, and nothing at all to say about the place of this novel in its culture and in its time - or his. Does anyone else find it peculiar, to say the least, that he could write an extensive essay about Daniel Deronda, in the early 1940s, with not a word about European Jews of his own time and place?
Sunday, November 27, 2016
George Eliot does a beautiful job in sorting out the complicated love relationships among the central characters toward the end of Daniel Deronda: The eponymous DD at last feels he can be in love with and marry the beautiful Jewish woman, Mirah, but the class differences between them are so vast and both he and she as so sensitive to the imbalance of power between them that their dialogue is awkward and stilted. DD does not want it to appear that he is taking advantage of Mirah, through some form of droits de seigneur, and she in turn thinks it's presumptuous for her to make an claim on DD's affections - so her older brother, Mordecai/Ezra, becomes what you might call the mediator: they both talk about their devotion to him and to his obsession with independence and freedom for the Jewish people, rather than about their attraction to and affection for each other. In a subsequent chapter, the widowed but now impoverished Gwendolen invites DD to her house to discuss her future. Ostensibly, she asks his advice on accepting any part of the inheritance from her abusive late husband, Grandcourt - she wants to take only enough $ to support her mother and half-siblings, none for herself. But what she really wants - is DD. She's trying to tell him that she will give up all of her claims on the Grandcourt estate if he will have her; he completely misunderstands and gives her cold, thoughtful, legal advice - or, if he does understand, he resists her overtures because of his love for Mirah. Her sorrow is extremely sad and touching - and I imagine all modern readers will wish that these characters could just come out and say what's in their hearts. There's so much unspoken here. I still suspect that Gwendolen will marry her cousin Rex - but it will be settling for second-best, not a likelihood for happy marriage among equals. Same with DD - can her really have a happy marriage with Mirah, so different from him and so lost in devotion to her strange brother; for how long will the marriage endure with the memories of St. Mordecai constantly between them? Eliot is, to her credit, resisting the happy resolution of the comic romance - there's a lot of darkness at the heart of this novel.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
The last 100 or so pages of Daniel Deronda will test the mettle of George Eliot - will she succumb to convention and end her novel as a conventional romantic comedy with the main characters nestled together a a set of married couples, each, through trial and trib., finding the best possible mate - which would be Deronda married to Mirha, and Gwendolen married to her cousin Rex: for at least three of them (Gwendolen the exception) this would constitute the fulfillment of long-suppressed desire. As we approach the conclusion, we see Mirah for the first time admit to herself her protective jealousy toward Deronda, rising to his defense when her brother, Hans, reproaches DD and suggests that he is now free to marry the widowed Gwendolen. And of course we know that the biggest obstacle between DD and Mirah has now been obliterated - she doesn't know it yet but DD is soon to tell her that he was born a Jew. All that said, I hope that Eliot can stay true to the darker forces that her novel reveals - that each of these characters, wiser but damaged, will pursue their own course through life - atonement for Gwendolen, pursuit of the law for Rex, serving her brother's memory for Mirah, becoming a champion for the Zionist movement for DD. For could either of these marriages really work? Mirah is saw lost in the devotion to her brother Mordecai/Edward (by far the least credible character in the novel - there's not a passage of his dialog, or monologue as the case may be, that sounds anything like the parlance of a human being) that it seems she will be a dead weight around DD or anyone else she marries. DD himself is so lost and confused - could her really become a good husband or father? Gwendolen is so damaged by her horrible marriage, her loss of pride, her trauma, and her guilt; and Rex is seems like a little puppy beside the powerful and sharp-witted Gwendolen - she could never look up to him or respect him as anything other than her kid cousin. Do we trust Eliot to be true to these facts - or to bow to convention and obliterate all she has created?
Friday, November 25, 2016
No surprise really that Gwendolen Grandcourt who collapsed and was found "crushed" on the floor at end of section did not actually die - just goes into a deep depression on the death of her husband, not because she loved him or misses him but our of guilt for not trying harder to save him from drowning, a perverse fulfillment of her barely suppressed desire to kill her abusive (mentally) husband. We learn in the next section that Grandcourt had pretty much cut her out of his vast estate - unless she bears him a son - so this leaves open a faint possibility: Could she have been pregnant when her husband drowned? If there's no son, all of the Gandcourt money goes to the son he had out of wedlock w/ Mrs. Glasher - we haven't even met this young man, but it would seem he's just a child. And by the way never mind his three sisters, they'll just have to depend on the kindness and generosity of their now wealthy older brother - typical of the fate of women in this novel and in the culture of the time. The sudden death of Grandcourt revives another passion: Gwendolen's cousin Rex had been broken-heated when she showed no interest in him years back; now, restored to health (he dropped out of Oxford for a year he was so depressed, and talked about going to Canada with his sister Anna), he's a rather boring law student, and he begins to wonder whether he might be back in the picture with Gwendolen. The poor young guy has no idea of the strength of the forces he's confronting - she's a strong and independent woman who would crush him. The one person who might enter into her life, the eponymous Deronda, is still traipsing through Europe and trying to learn more about his ancestry: he goes to Frankfort to recover the chest with records and documents that his long-lost mother has secured for him. I don't know what secrets are left to reveal here, unless he has some odd and unexpected relationship to the young woman, Mirah, whom he thinks he loves. He vows to continue with his interest in Judaism and, it would seem, in his commitment to advancing Zionism. We see by this point, near the end of the novel, how unconventional Eliot can be - quite different from most 19th-century British novelists: there are no happy reunions or marriages or incorporations into the social order on the horizon, it would seem - just characters wiser, more experienced, more committed to their unique path and vision: Deronda's Zionism is a reversal in a way of Huck Finn's heading "out for the territories" - another version of alienation from the accepted, rigid social order and from the world's expectations.
Thursday, November 24, 2016
You have to sense something will go wrong when the dour and spiteful Grandcourt insists on going "boating" with wife, Gwendolen, while they're laid over in Genoa. They rent a sailboat, and we have no idea whether he has any idea how to manage the boat, although he's so sure of himself that we suspect he may be getting in way over his head. Gwendolen dutifully manages the tiller, and all seems OK, and then - we shift viewpoint to Deronda's who arrives at the shorefront and sees a great disturbance and learns that a man has drowned in a boating accident. First reaction: even for 19th-century fiction, Eliot is pushing the boundaries of coincidence here. You figure the chances! Only a novelist's hand could bring these 3 characters together 1,000 miles from home at the very moment of greatest crisis. The question: was it an accident? We then get into a long scene in which Gwendolen "confesses" to Deronda; she's tormented by guilt. But did she kill her husband? Eliot toys with us for quite a while before the waters settle and we see that she didn't kill him but she sure didn't rush to his rescue - holding a line far too long - once he'd been knocked into the sea. (Might have been good if Eliot had set it up earlier that he couldn't swim - but maybe that's the problem w/ writing a novel in installments - you can't backtrack.) So her guilt is about her failure to act. That's too bad - it would have been more dramatically satisfying if she'd killed the bastard. In any event, Eliot ends this section of the novel - Revelations - when the hoteliers find Gwendolen on the floor in the morning crushed by her guilt. So - I'm hanging here - is she alive or dead? Readers, beware - a novelist will probably says "dead" if that's the outcome - "crushed" leaves everything open, and I think she needs this character alive for the remaining chapters. Gwendolen is by far the most interesting (and tragic) character in the novel; I don't believe DD will end up w/ her - too many forces are pulling him in different directions - but she will probably make amends to Mrs. Glasher and the out-of-wedlock children her horrible husband Grandcourt left behind.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
There are (at least) two "isms" at work in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, with varying degrees of effectiveness. The two: feminism, and Zionism (or we could reverse them and call the two chauvinism, and anti-Semitism). In my view the feminism/chauvinism theme is much more strongly presented in this novel. The most compelling and most credible character is Gwendolen, as we follow her on the sad course of her life, from smart and beautiful girl who attracts the attention of the most eligible bachelor in the area and then has her life blown up when she learns of his secret past - 3 children by another woman whom he never married - then she draws the attention of the handsome but untitled Deronda, which should be a serious match, but her family loses all its money and she marries the odious Grandcourt so that his wealth can support her mother and half-siblings. (The theme of the attractive and intelligent young woman married to a dislikeable, often older man runs throughout Eliot's work - we see it in Middlemarch, anyway). We truly feel for Gwendolen, for the loss of her independence, her subjugation, her broken spirit; similarly, when we meet DD's mother late in the novel and learn of her frustrated career as a singer, we understand that Eliot is showing us the difficult life for an intellectual or artistic woman in her era - but the Gwendolen narrative line is far better developed, and we empathize because we understand her and believe in her as a character. The Zionism theme, on the other hand, feels forced into the novel: do we ever really believe in the prophetic Mordecai, in the saintly but elusive Mirah, of her melodramatic rescue from the brink of drowning, most of all in Deronda and his peculiar obsession w/ the Jewish people of his time - when her truly seems not so interested in the Jewish cause as in Mirah. Credit to Eliot for writing such a fine novel about outsiders and outcasts - not at all typical of the work of her time - but this novel would have been stronger if it had a unified rather than a bifurcated theme.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Rest in peace William Trevor, who died today (ou peut etra hier), one of the two greatest living English-language short story writers is now gone (leaving Alice Munro) - though neither had been publishing much if at all over the past three or four years. Trevor was often called the English counterpart to Chekhov, and I think that's quite accurate: his short stories were like novels in miniature, not because they were packed with action or incident, quite the opposite, but because by containing so little - often just one scene or action - they conveyed and implied so much. I was not surprised to read in the NYTimes obit that Trevor had in earlier life pursued a career as a sculptor: in both sculpture and writing, his writing anyway, it's all about what's removed from the fiction (as he said in one interview); he has also said that he considers his novels - there were more than a dozen - to be failed short stories. His career as a sculptor also explains the haunting beauty of one of his greatest stories, Sacred Statues - about a young man who gives up a working-class job to create statuary for churches, but can't make a living at it, ends up on a road crew, and the beautiful last line that I can only paraphrase: The world, not he, had failed. I wish I could remember more of his stories in detail - but what stays with me is primarily the mood of loneliness, sorrow, missed opportunities, a world of being much like Chekhov's, as it happens. I believe I have 17 posts on Trevor, which those interested can look at - mostly from my reading of his Selected (or Collected?) Stories, about 5 years ago. I would say the only thing not good about Bob Dylan's winning the Nobel Prize for literature this year is that now Trevor will never receive the honor (which goes only to living writers): I wish they split the prize the year Munro won (as they did years ago, I think for 2 Israeli authors).
Monday, November 21, 2016
At last Daniel Deronda learns who his parents are and learns in the process what most readers had long suspected - that he is Jewish by birth. He meets his mother, now the widow of some sort of Eastern European count and in her youth a famous singer (clear reprise here of the early career of Mirah, the young Jewish woman w/ whom DD is in love, who had spent her youth on tour as a child-prodigy singer, pushed by her evil father). DD's mother turns out to be cold as ice; she rebuffs every attempt he makes to care for her and to receive her love. She is an angry and bitter woman, and has no regrets about giving up DD when he was 2, only feeling that she did well for him by placing him with Sir Hugo, a English lord who raised DD as an English Xtian gentleman. She believes she saved DD fro the hateful fate of being born a Jew. So where does Eliot stand in all of this? She seems to be suggesting that blood will out - that DD, despite his being raised as a Christian, inevitably follows a path toward Judaism - falling in love w/ Mirah, adopting her brother as a mentor, and, perhaps - the novel seems to be heading this way - devoting his life to the cause of Zionism. So all of DD's mother's efforts to in a sense inoculate her son against Judaism have failed. Yet Eliot is not entirely contemptuous of DD's aristocratic mother. There is a telling passage in which the mother says she did the right thing because she wanted to be a great performing artist and raising a son would have made that impossible - women cannot have both motherhood and artistic success. How can we not hear Eliot's voice in that? How cannot we not accept the truth of that lament - at least in the late 19th century? She is cruel and cold-hearted no doubt, but she is also a protofeminist, facing a dilemma that no male artist would face, making a decision for which no male artist would be castigated. Not that all artists don't suffer, each in his or her own way - Hans Meyrick in this novel is an example - but the lament of DD's long-estranged mother rings with a particular plangency and truth.
Sunday, November 20, 2016
The section "Revalations" in Daniel Deronda does conclude with a revelation, kind of, as Sir Hugo, who has raised DD from infancy and whom DD suspects may be his father (which would make DD a potential heir to his title), hands DD a letter that he says will reveal his actual parentage; he says he has withheld this information from DD for all this time at the request of DD's mother, but now he has her blessing to reveal the truth. What does DD do? Puts the letter - unread - into a jacket pocket! Who would do that? Only an author who wants to keep her readers guessing until the next installment. Well, we get one bit of info, as DD asks Sir Hugo: Is my father living? The answer is, no - so that seems to be a blow to DD, but we suspect not a fatal blow. In the previous chapter there was a very nasty confrontation: Gwendolen, who is in a miserable marriage to the wealthy Grandcourt but who still maintains a crush on DD, invites DD over to have a private conversation. That seems like dangerous grounds, and it is - as Grandcourt becomes suspicious when Gwendolen says she's not feeling well and will skip an opportunity to ride horses; Grandcourt turns back and surprises Gwendolen in mid-conversation. DD leaves abruptly - it's surprising that Grandcourt doesn't challenge him to a duel on the spot - and the next day Grandcourt tells Gwendolen he's going away "yachting" for a few months - and she's coming with him. What a time that will be - cute couple stashed away together - sounds like a Polanski movie. All signs are point toward Gwendolen and Deronda getting together, though Eliot is a lot tougher and more cynical than Dickens or Trollope - this is not a romance, and I suspect things will not end happily ever after. I am anticipating a more "American" ending, with characters, or at least the lead character, heading off "into the wilderness" to pursue his ideals (Zionism) or his ideal (Mirah).
Saturday, November 19, 2016
Daniel Deronda tells his friend? master? mentor? charity case? obsession? Mordecai that he has made a major discovery and has a significant announcement to make - and the reactions to this declaration are telling - telling about the course of this novel, about the Victorian age, and about Eliot (George). First reaction: Mordecai expects that DD will tell him he's learned of his parentage and that he is in fact a Jew. This, however, is not to be (yet, anyway) and has nothing to do w/ the announcement. Then, the Cohen family that has sheltered and provided for the somewhat mentally deranged Mordecai hopes and expects that DD is about to tell them that Mordecai has inherited a fortune. (Ha ha - typical of Eliot's condescending if not anti-Semitic attitudes). Then, DD tells them: he has found Mordecai's long-lost sister, Mirah. (He doesn't tell that he saved Mirah from drowning, nor that he is in love w/ Mirah.) This leads to much discussion about the future course of Mordecai's life: DD and Mrs. Meyrick - mother of his college friend, Hans, and the one who has more or less adopted Mirah into her family - take care of all the practicalities, renting a place for Mordecai not far from Meyrick household - so they've more or less taken over Mordecai's life and care. But to what end? Will Mirah now give up her music career to take care of her brother? And will Mordecai give up his dream of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine now that he can settle into a life free of financial worry? Eliot has really slowed the pace in this section of the novel, delaying the inevitable big scene of reunion of brother and sister - partly to build tension of course, but perhaps she has other twists and surprises to build into the plot. On the periphery - it's clear that both DD and his best friend, Hans, have fallen for the beautiful Mirah; these developments could lead to the dissolution of their friendship as well as to the increasing isolation and self-sacrifice of Mirah. We have to believe that Mordecai's instincts were correct as well - we still don't know anything about DD's parentage, and it would make sense if he were to learn that he's of Jewish descent - although that would also seal the fate of the novel, which at least on some level suggests that mistreatment of the Jews is an issue for all of the British, not for Jews only. (Whether emigration to Palestine is a proper solution is another matter - as the homeland idea represents not really support for the English Jews but the complete rejection of the Jewish culture, as with the idea, espoused by Lincoln himself, of sending freed slaves to a homeland in Africa.)