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

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

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The evolutoin of Karl Ove Knausgaard's style

Following long post yesterday and summarizing as best I can the stages of Karl Ove Knausgaard's literary development, as we piece it together from Book 5 and its predecessors in My Struggle. Like most writer, his earliest attempts are somewhat realistic accounts of childhood adventures and misadventures - I believe there is one episode of boys playing in the woods and getting into some trouble that we read both as a direct account in My Struggle and, later, as part of a novel that the teenage KOK is writing. Then he enters the Writing Academy, in Bergen, at age 19 - a Norwegian equivalent of entry into the Iowa Writers Workshop, with the difference that there doesn't seem to be an undergraduate writing program in Norway, at least at that time - but KOK is the youngest by far accepted into the program (I think there are only 8 per class). There, two things happen: the teachers push him toward writing in other forms (poems, plays) and they exhort the students to "make it new" and to read a wide range of avant garde literature (not all contemporary, includes the French symbolists, for ex.) and his work is severely criticized as immature and cliche'd, which it no doubt is - he's only 19! The writer he most admires - the American "brat pack" of the 1990s, so-called, who wrote in clipped, disaffected prose about the emptiness of their lives, are out of favor with his professors and he doesn't try to imitate them, probably wisely, as he is by no means a minimalist, So it appears that he moves to a more experimental style - tho we don't see an examples of it, he begins talking about a novel involving angels come to earth - and that will clearly be his 1st published novel (I ony know it had Angels in the title). But sometime later in his career he must have done a turnaround and began to write the multi-volume, memoir-like re-creation of his life that has formed My Struggle, both admired and in some corners denounced for its attention to detail, even trivial detail, and for its almost shocking honesty. He has come full circle - writing about his life but with an acuity and maturity that he could never have approached had he tried to so at an earlier stage, and no doubt he would have burned through his material. I greatly admire this work - it's not exactly Proustian, though all memoir-novelists are in some debt to Proust, because he rarely philosophizes or generalizes and engages in aesthetic and psychological expostulations - the books begin with a great meditation on death, but that's an exception rather than the norm - but no other novelist working today has laid his soul so bare for all to see, and to learn from.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Writing Program, Norway style, and how it nearly ruined Karl Ove Knausgaard

Part 1 of volume 5 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle ends with KOK in tears - in front of his brother, Yngve - he has just gone on a mean drunk, woke up in complete oblivion, hauled off by the police, sobered up in a holding cell, was told he had been found on the floor in a hallway in a nursing home - apparently someone had done some vandalism as well, probably him but they aren't charging him - and he goes to his brother and remembers that in the middle of his binge he had hurled a glass at his brother's face, Yngve now bandaged up but fortunately not blinded. Quite a powerful end to this section - the teenager (19) who entered the Writing Academy in Bergen with hopes of becoming a great or at least a good novelist has now ended in despair about his work and about his life and with a very serious alcohol problem - he can't not drink in social situations and he drinks until blackout and he's a mean and dangerous drunk. How he has changed! Can we blame the writing program for this? In part - he was obviously too young and immature and too raw a talent to withstand the pressure of constant criticism and the obsession of his teachers with experimental and avant garde lit was not a felicitous math for KOK and his talents. Unlike most American programs they had all students write in all genres, not sure why, and the age range varied widely - they seemingly have or had no direct equivalent to college years, the time in which most young writers really figure things out and write lots of dark poetry about their "feelings" because what else to 20-year-olds really have access to or know? KOK would have benefited from that - and then enter a program in mid-20s with a more clear idea of his talents and goals. Though we know that the joke's on everyone else as now he is perhaps the most famous Norwegian novelist of all time, he was clearly not ready for the program nor did it help him (I think). He shouldn't even have been trying a novel at age 19 - he didn't have the experience or the wisdom or the gravitas to take that on; he needed to develop is talent with shorter pieces, short stories - just like the American writers whom he says he admired the most at that time - BE Ellis, McInerney, JA Phillips are 3 he mentions - and it's notable that each of them wrote about the vacuity of life of among 20-something Americans. That's possibly something KOK could have tried - but it's probably better that he waited until he was mature enough to mine the depths of his life, not polish the surface (it's interesting that none of American writers he mentions - children of Carver and grandchildren of Hemingway, progressed much, in my view, beyond their early work - they layed out the string too early maybe?). We get glimpses and references of the first novel KOK will write, something about angels descending to earth and speaking and observing - and we sense, yes, this is the kind of clever piece that has nothing to do with reality that is often the ticket for a first-time novelist - but we don't see any of this work except in shadow as part of My Struggle, and that's just as well. KOK leaves the academy at the end of the one-year program much worse off than when he started, his confidence shattered, and I think we'll probably see in the 2nd part of this volume how he built his stature and managed to compete and sell novel #1 - a style and form that he has moved far beyond over the course of his career, as all readers of MS understand.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Sorrow of the young Knausgaard in Book 5 of My Struggle

As hinted and noted in previous post, Karl Ove Knausgaard's brother, Yngve, double-crosses him and begins dating the young woman whom KOK has been pursuing for months (Ingvild). It's a pretty good scene when Y tells KOK, as they are walking in the rain (a constant throughout book 5 of My Struggle) near their grandparents' farmhouse that he is now "seeing" Ingvild. KOK had anticipated this but he is still humiliated and angry and vows never to speak again to Yngve. (Of course we know he does not keep his vows as we have seen their relationship in many stages in the first 4 volumes - tho there is always an edge to their fraternal relations, an edge sharpened by this incident.) In fact, KOK gives in and resumes talking with Yngve pretty quickly - with much less bitterness and anger than I would have suspected. These wound usually cut very deep and last a long time. In an odd scene, Ingvild comes to KOKs apartment to talk about things - he had been waiting for her to do so for a long time, and it was during this stubborn phase that he lost her to his brother - and he very awkwardly - once again, we can see the he is far too immature for her, though he cannot see this, at the time - tries to get her to stay, have a cup of tea (in his almost slapstick nervousness he bumbles at making the tea, just as he had bumbled at trying to have sex with her the first and only time they went out on a date) and then reads her a very long, dark, death-obsessed poem by Celan - drinking black milk at dawn, and so forth - that she listens to with polite agitation. In other words, he has no idea how to behave around a woman whom he thinks he loves - he gets nervous, then gets drunk, then things get worse. My thoughts in yesterday's post still hold: that he is in fact on some level relieved not to have to try to make a mature relationship work out over the course of time, and he also seems to wallow in the humiliation and abasement - no one would want him, no one can love him, no one can understand him - in other words, fairly typical lamentations from a young, sensitive, creative young man who is struggling to express his inchoate ideas in his writing - and who in maturity will find writing variously therapeutic, purgative, and essential.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Missing his chance: Navigaing the difficult waters of romance in My Struggle Book 5

So let's think for a minute about why Karl Ove Knausgaard, then age 19 and just begin his studies at the Writing Academy in Bergen, a fairly prestigious gig it seems, which KOK recounts in, as all readers of My Struggle know, almost excruciating detail, refuses to get back in touch with the young woman, Ingvile, with whom he's been madly in love from a distance and whom he has affronted or alienated by his boorish, drunken advances when she accompanied him to his brother's party, their first date. He visits her briefly the next day, a penitent, and things seem to be going OK, maybe she will forgive him and maybe he can learn to be more thoughtful and tender toward her, to nourish their relationship rather than leap on her, crowd her, or push things too fast. So he decides to let her make the next move - and he spends it seems well more than two weeks, waiting each night for her to call or stop by. Why would he do this? Strange as it seems it's a behavior that I think echoes with a lot of male readers, as we look back on teenage years and the struggles of early college years. First, there's the sense of wounded pride - let her make the first move, I shouldn't go groveling to her, it's not "manly" - an attitude guys get from much of pop culture (though not from pop or rock music, which is more about the pain of broken romance). But it's also about shame and abasement - he feels so embarrassed about his clumsy approach to her, and about his own sexual inadequacies (he suffers from premature ejaculation, which may be why he fears a long, tender sexual encounter), that he just doesn't want to see her again, on some level. Third, there's a sense that young men sometimes feel of, the hell with it, relationships are just too complex and demanding and troubling that I'd rather just check out and be left alone. He doesn't really feel that, or not for long, but he may feel that he just can't navigate all those difficult waters, making conversation, making arrangement, all the verbal and physical foreplay - guys are just not good at that and maybe not meant to be (there's a reason that girls tend to date guys several years older). Whatever the reason may be, it's a sad moment in Book 5 of this series, as Ingvild seems like a perfectly delightful girl and we can see - as KOK could not, at the time - that she is probably at home, crying wondering what she did to lose him, and it will not take long before she's w/ someone else, someone better, probably older (there's a hint that it may be KOK's older brother, Yngve) and he will have missed his chance, let her get away.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Alcohol and alcoholism in Knausgaard's My Struggle

Book 5 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's amazing My Struggle is of course about his struggle not to "become a writer" but to "write" - as most of the volume, at least through the first quarter, is about his experiences in the Writing Academy in Bergen, a select group of aspiring writers, among whom he appears to be the youngest - and it's difficult for him to deal w/ the sharp criticism his work receives from the two professors and from the other students: sometimes being pushed to tears, and wanting to lash out and do something self-destructive like write an entire poem consisting only of the word "cunt" repeated across a whole typesheet and reading the "poem" aloud - which fortunately a friend dissuades him from doing. In parallel w/ his learning to write is his learning how to have a normal and healthy love relationship with a woman. The volume begins w/ his having completely fallen in love with a woman his age (20), can't remember her name, Ing-something - they had met briefly (in one of the earlier volumes, the exact circumstances elude me) and over the summer kept up a correspondence (how quaint that seems today) and KOK has no idea whether she's as interested as he is or if on her part it's just friendship. He's like a little kid, nervous about calling her, wondering if he'll be able to make conversation, etc. - but things seem to be going well, she obviously is pleased that he calls and comes to see her in Bergen. He invites her to a party at his brother's house, and for fortitude and confidence begins drinking heavily before and then during the party - and that brings to light one of the darker strands of this series of novels: KOK's obvious problems with alcoholism, a malady that essentially killed his father (and grandmother). He drinks an incredible amount and then comes on to the lovely Ing as a drunken lout and risks ruining the entire relationship - although he makes some amends the next morning. As we think about KOK's "struggle" through his novels, throughout his life that is, to bith "fit in" and to be special and unique, an artist, we have to think of alcohol as a tool or crutch he uses to feel more relaxed, confident, and normal - and then think about how alcohol leads him to humiliation and failure, making him "stand out."

Monday, April 25, 2016

The influence of the writing program on Knausgaard's style

Anyone who's ever been in a writing seminar or perhaps even in a writing group will recognize all of the notes that Karl Ove Knausgaard strikes in his account of his first days in the writers' academy in Bergen - it's something like a graduate writing program, although some of the students, such as KOK, have not attended college (it seems that high school in Norway is somewhat like college in the U.S. - KOK went directly from high school into teaching in a high school, for example). His graduate seminar includes all of the recognizable types - the "stern girl," the radical and acerbic and dramatic-looking girl, the insecure, the pompous, the one who looks like a pushover and then astonishes w/ some great poetry, and so on - but he's not writing about all of these people in detail, it's obvious, he and he alone is the "subject" of his six-volume My Struggle (this is volume 5) and what he's really after is an accurate account of his formation as a writer. His struggle, as noted in previous posts, is both to be accepted and "ordinary" while, at the same time, to be recognized and appreciated as unique - in a way that's the struggle of every adolescent, but in particular it's the struggle of one trying to recount his emotions, feelings, and experiences in literary prose (or verse). We see in these early sections of volume 5 the influence of his two seminar teachers - they are pushing the students to "make it new," to avoid metaphor and other literary devices and to write avant garde or even experimental. The books they suggest the students read - many of which I'd never heard of (especially the Norwegian writers of course) - are a litany of postmodernism, magic realism, and two centuries of European experimental and radical fiction and poetry - Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet, Garcia Marquesz, Cortazar, and others. As it happens, most (not all - Iowa has been an exception, historically) writing programs do push students toward the extreme and unusual rather than the popular and conventional, and we see this influence on KOK, as he takes in stride the critique of the short story he presents (we don't get to read that story, maybe just as well) and writes his first good poem (this we do see, and it is quite good), but we're of course aware of the irony or paradox: the novel we're reading is vast and ambitious but in form rather conventional, a rejection of the willful obscurity and complexity that his teachers pushed him toward.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Knausgaard's life and my own

Started reading the eagerly anticipated My Struggle Volume 5 and as usual am drawn immediately into the life of Karl Ove Knausgaard; even the first paragraph is very amusing, a wink from KOK to the many readers who have stayed w/ him this far, paraphrasing: I lived in Bergen from XX to XX and I don't remember a thing about it. Hah! I bet. And of course from that point he goes into an exquisitely detailed recollection of his arrival in Bergen penniless (kroner-less) after some difficult travels across the continent, meeting w/ his brother, settling into his year-long sublet, lonely but exhilarated, walking the streets killing time, thinking about young woman he's fallen for based on brief encounter and many letters, worried about when and how to look her up, not to be overly eager nor too diffident, thinking about the start of his studies in the writing academy. Once again I'm completely astonished at how unique and specific these events and recollections are to KOK yet how they also strike me as completely universal, or maybe that's just true from others who had dreamed or or strived to "become a writer," (and I especially admire that he doesn't just dream of becoming a writer, doesn't in any way pose as a writer, but he actually writes - makes a point of finding the time to be alone and to concentrate on his work, even at this fledgling stage) but his experiences so exactly mirror my own, from a different generation, a different culture, a family entirely different from his - but on an experiential and emotional level I understand so much of what he has experienced. As another commentator said, and I'm sure I've quoted this before, it's like looking into someone else's diary and discovering it's your own.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Immigrants abroad: Vapnyar story in New Yorker

Reading Lara Vapnyar's story in current New Yorker, Waiting for the Miracle, I can't help but think how many fine contemporary American writers have chronicled the immigrant experience in all its varieties, off the top thinking of Diaz, Lahiri, O'Neil, Rae-Lee, list could go on and starting to see more from Africa and SE Asia (the UK has seen more immigrant lit from these continents) and of course other generations have had their own immigrant lit as well, Roth (Henry), Singer (IB), Bellow forming a solid triumvirate of Jewish-American to the point at which I think maybe the only contemp writer who falls outside the scope is Erdrich. In any event, Vapnyar has been making a great career writing about the recent wave of Russian immigrants, and her new story is a good example of the genre and its insights. Story tells of a 30-year-old man, Vadik, coming to the U.S. on a 3-year work visa, heading for a job in who-know-where NJ (he will be surprised, if there is a sequel to this story, at how far he is from NYC, which is his real aspiration). On landing he's welcomed by old friend from Russia now settled in U.S. and no longer, Vadik sees immediately, the dramatic-romantic counterculture guy who got all the girls - now he's living in a drab house on Staten Island, has a chubby obnoxious 6-year-old son addicted to video games and TV action shows, and he and his wife talk mostly about real estate. Vadik, seemingly tireless, says he ahs to go see Manhattan, takes a bus in from SI and walks for hours on the slushy streets, ending up in a diner (are there such things in NY?) where he meets a lovely young grad student, goes back to her apartment, has very gratifying sex with her, and in the am leaves her a note and departs. She was the miracle, of course, but oddly he left w/out any attempt to share contact info and he was - as we learn in flash-forward - to spend the rest of his life trying to find her, yearning for her, feeling that he'd missed something important and essential - a hollowness to the rest of his life. Maybe not literally believable - but the story gives a great sense of his excitement about, bewilderment by, and misapprehension of the codes and mores of the new world. We see the innocence and exuberance of a newly arrived, relatively prosperous immigrant and the first sense of cultural clash (he and the woman, Rachel, argue about the significance of Leonard Cohen song lyrics - title is a the title of a Cohen song - which he considers bold and romantic and she sees as oppressive and misogynistic) and fault lines in comprehension.

Friday, April 22, 2016

A journey into the extremes of the psyche - The Vegetarian

The third and final section of Han Kang's The Vegetarian is the only one from the woman's POV - though the sisgter Yeong-Hie is the eponymous character around whom all of the events of the novel circulate we get little aspect to her mind, little info about how she sees herself - we see her only from the viewpoint of others, though it's clear in each viewpoint - her husband (later ex husband), her brother-in-law (later ex-brother in law), and in this last section her older sister - that she is very disturbed, suicidal, most likely schizophrenic. Her strange behavior, which begins with her sudden repulsion at everything to do w/ meat, its look its taste its odor, which alienates her (further) from husband and family, by the 3rd section has her refusing to eat all food and somehow imaging or believing that she is a tree - to the point where stands on her hands for long period of time, imagining that her arms are roots digging into the ground for nourishment. In this third section older sister visits her in the psychiatric hospital - her lonely journey there by bus in the rain, with a long walk seemingly through tunnel to get to the main building?, is a tour de force in itself. At the hospital they've essentially given up on helping Yeong-Hie and are at the point of trying to force-feed her through a tube inserted into her nostrils. Ghastly (they do this w/ hunger-strikers in prison, I believe). Throughout this section we increasingly realize that the case is hopeless and that the young woman's mental illness has destroyed two marriages and rent apart her family (parents are now estranged from both daughters and ashamed). No question that his novel is powerful, unusual, and difficult - but also I'm really not sure I'd recommend it to most readers. It's a study in disturbance and its broad bands of destructive effect, but it seems in some ways so bizarre, so atypical, that it's not really about a social or medical problem as much as a journey into the extremes of the psyche - like a Rimbaud or Baudelaire poem in contemporary prose. Enter if you dare, or care.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Who are these troubled people?: The Vegetarian

I can see, reading the second section of Han Kang's The Vegetarian, that this books, which comprises three long stories published separately, is in fact a novel or something like a novel; the 2nd part, Mongolian Mark, takes us a few years later in the lives of the characters. The troubled young woman who seemingly on an impulse decided not to eat meat, leading to a crude and cruel family intervention (father slapping her and trying to force fee a piece of meat), a suicide attempt, a hospitalization, and some bizarre behavior (sitting naked in the hospital lobby), is now divorced from her boorish and narcissistic husband and, several months out of a psychiatric hospital, living alone and trying to rebuilt her life. As in part 1, however, she is a secondary character (although the title character), and both sections are told from a male POV - the first, that of her then-husband, and the 2nd from the POV of her brother-in-law  (sister's husband), a video artist with a strange obsession: He is deeply attracted to his sister-in-law (much more than he's attracted to his wife - odd, in that the vegetarian's husband made a point of saying how his wife was entirely ordinary in appearance - taste differs, of course, but there seems to be a theme here of mismatched mates). In this section, the video artist, seemingly trying to help out his troubled sister-in-law by visiting her and solicitously bringing her fruit, persuades her to pose for him in a video. He begins production of the video surreptitiously - it involves his painting her with a network of floral designs. Though in general she is shy and uncommunicative and seemingly repressed, she really likes the designs he's painted; in the 2nd shoot he asks another artist to join them and he paints him, too, and then asks them to have sex while he films - the other artist protests, angry that he's been duped into what appears to be a porn film, and stalks off. So the video artist has himself painted w/ floral designs, shows up at his sister-in-laws, and they have sex - all recorded on his camcorder - which of course his wife discovers. She's furious at him not so much for his infidelity as for taking advantage of her obviously mentally unbalanced sister. Well, the whole story is mentally imbalanced - I guess it's all possible, anything's possible, but it's unlikely and unpleasant to read: Who are these troubled people, why are they so cruel to this vulnerable young woman, where are we coming from where are we going?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Why she won't eat meat: The Vegetarian

Han Kang's "new" "novel," The Vegetarian, is in quotes becasue apparently it was published as three separate stories or short novels in 2007 and is now brought out in translation as a single novel, so who knows? (Kang is South Korean, and writes in Korean, though she has spent time in the U.S., including Iowa grad schoo; I know nothing else about her publishing history, but this does not seem to be her first novel - she's about 45). Judging by the first section, so far it's a totally odd book: narrator describes himself in a totally self-deprecating manner, he's a 30-something guy working in sales of some sort - never describes exactly what he does, but works very long hours - and he is married to someone whom he describes as totally ordinary in looks, demeanor, ambition - he hardly seems to be in love w/ her at all, it's as if he married not for love, sex, family, status, but simply to have someone nearby to cook and clean, a servant basically (not that he abuses her or is cruel in any apparent way, either). One day all of a sudden she announces that she will never again eat meat, and she disposes of all the meat (including poultry and fish) and begins serving a vegan diet - apparently quite unusual in Korea at that time and maybe still. This decision, which she doesn't explain except to say she "had a dream" leads to complete alienation from husband and from her family (sibs and parents) and to some kind of nervous breakdown. Interpolated w/ this fairly straightforward narrative account of a woman in deep mental crisis Kan includes several italicized passages, which are the inner thoughts of the wife (some of which she may or may not have spoken aloud to the narrator) and these present ghastly imagines of eating blood-red meat, of animal torture, and so on, giving us strange access to her consciousness and some understanding of her actions - but not of why she's so withholding and doctrinaire.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A narrator struggling with erased memory - Modiano

Patrick Modiano's short novel from 2003, Paris Nocturne, takes a turn toward the conventional in the last section - though, granted, Modiano needs more than just a turn to ever be considered a conventional novelist - but in this instance, whereas the other Modiano's novels that I have read conclude with a deepening of the mystery, with open and unanswered questions, with a chilling ambiguity, in this case, in a sense, the narrator "gets the girl." The novel begins with the narrator being struck by a car driven by a mysterious woman, and he spends much of the narrative (though there are many layers to the story) trying to track down this woman - in part because he thinks he may have known her in his early youth, during the years when his family was scattered and frequently on the move. Well, toward the end, after much fruitless searching and stalking, he suddenly sees her car parked on a street near a restaurant, goes in, introduces himself to her, and she of course remembers him, she reassures him that they did not know each other back in his childhood days, and after some probing questions that she deflects - he's eager to hear more about her relationship w/ the gangster who showed up after the accident, and she insists she's just his secretary, really? - they go off together into the night, presumably to begin a relationship. So yes by most standards the ending is still quite unsettled, as the woman seems as if she's be nothing but trouble and if we could turn a few pages past the conclusion we'd see the gangster employer/boyfriend back on the scene - but for Modiano this is practically a romantic ending. That said, I think he makes the discovery of the woman just too easy, too obvious - as if he had no more string to unfurl and we might as well just get it over w/ - but it's still a novel, like all his others, that's full of nuance and suggestion: a narrator in search of answers about his unsettled childhood, struggling w/ great memory erasures (it's significant that his Proustian madeleine is the scent of ether), much like his country in years just after the Occupation - and of course a narrator with memory loss, gaps, and uncertainties the antithesis of the conventional French naturalistic narrator and, for that matter, of the detective telling a tale of noir.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Lake a patient etherized: Modiano's Paris Nocturne

Patrick Modiano's 2003 short novel, Paris Nocturne (the French title is Accident Nocturne - why take such liberties w/ a title, even if you can come up w/ a better one? Is that really the translator's proper role?) is recognizably Modiano right from the start, developing many of the themes he built his novels on in the 1990s, in this case, as in I think each of the short novels in Suspended Sentences, a man in contemporary time (2003) looks back at an important event in this life: in this case, the novel begins in about 1985 as the author, then a man in his 20s or so, crossing a street in Paris - night time, we later learn he has just said good-bye to his girlfriend who is heading to England for what she thinks will be a short stay but turns out they never see each other again - and he's struck by a car, injuring his ankle. He's later hustled off to a hospital, along w/ a bloody-faced woman who was apparently the driver - a big man with brown hair gets them to the hospital. Under ether, the narrator has a memory and thinks he recalls knowing the woman driver from some similar episode in his past: we learn that as a schoolboy he'd been struck by a car, also treated under ether, and a woman - apparently or at least possibly the same woman - lived in his apartment building and came to his aid. So is this a fantasy, or weird coincidence, or something more sinister? There is something mysterious about this woman: the brown-haired man gets the author to sign a statement that he will not press charges, and gives him a lot of cash. We get the sense that maybe she's a celebrity? We certainly get the sense that the man is a gangster - which leads to another chain of connections, familiar back story for all Modiano novels: moving about among many places in his childhood, abandoned by his mother (he doesn't even know her identity, though in one weird scene a woman who may be his mother shows up in front of his house and berates him), the father with some kind of mob connections plunging deeper into poverty and later dropping from his son's life, the man streets and parks and stations in Paris with their odd names, all seen by night. One different twist is his brushing shoulders w/ a philosopher-guru who leads impromptu street seminars near the university - and his relationship w/ two female acolytes. There are fewer over political implications in his novel, but we still have sense that the disappearances and the secretive nature of all encounters is part of the French guilt and group amnesia about the Occupation.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Fate and freedom and a unique acount of the Holocaust

Imre Kertesz's 1975 novel, Fateless, seems to be an autobiographical document, a thinly veiled memoir, and it's hard not to think of it as such, a personal account of a young man's passage through the hell of the German concentration camps, one of the few to survive to tell the story. At first (earlier post) I thought the narrator was imprisoned near the start of the war, as he seemed so completely naive and uninformed about the camps - never even heard of Auschwitz, but as we learn going forward he spent only (only?) one year in the camps before the liberation - so by this account, no doubt accurate, the public, especially under the Nazi-controlled states such as Hungary, knew little or nothing about these supposed work camps. Kertesz's account is straightforward and terrifying - very different from one of his other novels that I posted on a few years ago, Liquidation?, which was so caught up in narrative games as to be impenetrable and nearly meaningless. Part of the excellence of Fateless is the strict adherence to the young man's point of view: there's so much he doesn't understand, but we can see around the edges of his knowledge and we can know more about the Nazis, the camps, the course of the war than he ever does. One mystery remains for me at the end: why was he taken into a hospital (with leg injures) and treated so (relatively) well during the last months of the war? I would have thought an injured young worker was completely expendable, but apparently not, for some reason. The novel has a terrific concluding chapter in which the camps are liberated and the narrator returns home to Budapest, to find the city of course in near ruin and to learn the "fate" of his family. Kertesz presents a highly ironic passage - he was writing this in a country then under Soviet rule - as the Hungarian youth heading home are led through a series of marching songs about workers and the proletariat - a glimpse forward to the next oppression under which they would live, but in a passage unassailable and readily embraced by the censors. At the end, the narrator explains, in a painful dialogue w/ some of his old neighbors, his view of the difference between fate and freedom - refusing to believe this imprisonment and liberation were his "fate" - that if we are fated to a predetermined end we have no freedom of action: to be "fateless" is in some measure to be free. At the end we see several reactions to the returning prisoners: some wanting them to tell their stories (the narrator at that juncture refuses to do so), others questioning: did you see evidence of the gas chambers? No? Then of course we don't really know that they existed? - this refusal to believe the horrors, this desire to expunge guilt - still going on today.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Much promise but not much payoff in current NYer story

Both impressed by and annoyed by Colin Barrett story, Anhedonia, Here I Come, in current New Yorker, so on the plus side Barrett does a great job establishing a louche and depressed and narcissistic character, of the type that anyone who's been an English grad student probably knows, a young man who has an image of himself as a poet and plays that up to the hilt, doing everything to uphold that image aside from writing good poetry. Although this guy, bob, is a little old for that pose - pushing 30, making a meager living by doing illustrations for a porn fantasy website (an option not available to grad students in my time, though I did know someone writing for porn pulps and, from my memory of the guy, I'm guessing he had little experience and a vivid imagination). The crux of the matter: I don't completely trust anyone who says that he (or she) wants to be a writer, a poet, a novelist. If that's going to happen, you should be saying: I want to write poems/stories/novels. It's not about being a poet, it's about writing poetry. Barrett is obviously a writer - some of the passages in this story are great, even LOL, such as Bob being a young man who frequently ponders suicide, except for one thing: he doesn't want to die. Interestingly, this story is set in Europe, in Ireland I think but can't be sure, but that wasn't obvious or even important until there was a reference to payment in Euros (unlike other Anglo-Irish writers who I think sometimes go out of their way to include very British terms like council housing and "maths" - Tessa Hadley does this). This tormented young man - the kind of outsider so often found in American fiction and less so in English or Irish - spends his day buying drugs from a school girl, having a homosexual pickup w/ a guy he encounters by chance, then drinking heavily w/ a poetry editor and his female protegee, of whom Bob becomes wildly jealous when he learns the editor will publish her first book. Is this author-jealousy theme a new kick for New Yorker editors, btw? Story ends with Bob in his apartment (they don't even call it a "flat") smoking, in defiance of a safety order because of a potential gas leak. So - what? That's the problem - Barrett establishes a character but doesn't go anywhere w/ him; there's no arc to the story, no resolution, to final insight. Is this, as w/ so many other NYer "stories," part of a longer piece? I hope it might be because there's much promise here though not much payoff.

Friday, April 15, 2016

A Holocaust novel with a unique perspective - Fateless

Started Imre Kertesz's first novel, Fateless, from 1975, a late-life debut (he was 45) and prelude to a Nobel - his novel is one of the many memoir-like first-person accounts of the horrors of World War II - with the twist that the experience is that of a young man, 15 years old, a Hungarian Jew, and as we see the events unfolding we are pained as we have so much more knowledge and perspective than he has. In most of the other Holocaust novels (and memoirs) that I'm familiar w/ the narrator knows precisely the horrible fate in store for him (or her) yet lives to tell the tale. This novel - the title says it all - he has no idea of his fate: as a young man he and other Jews are pulled from school in Budapest and assigned to a work detail at a nearby petroleum facility, and the narrator thinks that's just fine - it's hard work but he enjoys being with a gang of guys and doesn't seem to mind especially being pulled from school. His father - we see in the first chapter - was also seized and sent on a work detail, and the first chapter involves a lot of machinations to give the family lumber business to a non-Jew to manage while the father is "away" - they're very glad to have done so, but we know how that will work out. Similarly, one day the boys are stopped on the highway on the way to the work detail and, over the course of a few days, put on a boxcar with hundreds of others, mostly (but not all) young men, being sent to an important, secret work location - turns out to be Auschwitz (none had ever heard of this place) and as the narrator and his co-workers, along with hundreds, maybe thousands, of others are incorporated into the camp they only very gradually begin to understand what's happening: what happened to all the elderly and infirm, the women and younger children, who were on the box car with them? What's with the mysterious interest in any sets of twins? The writing is so simple and stark and naive that it just adds to the horror, echoes the truly bizarre need for orderliness and proper record-keeping that was somehow innate to the Nazi mentality - and has secured their place in history and in the darkest circles of hell.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The strangled by its plot, Kerr's March Violets is a good twist on the noir genre

Philip Kerr's March Violets concludes (although it doesn't really conclude; it's the first volume in a trilogy, Berlin Noir, and it apparently truly is a trilogy, with many strands left untied at the end of volume 1 - it's not just 3 novels about the same detective) with a voyage to the lower depths of depravity and evil, as the protagonist, Bernhard Gunther, gets picked up by the Gestapo and forced to become a prisoner at Dachau (the time is 1936 - the camps were not yet in full force) but actually working for the Gestopo, trying to get info from another prisoner - a safecracker - who'd deliberately had himself committed to Dachau because he knew that's the one place they wouldn't look for him (though what could be worse, honestly) - that's a plot element I've heard of or read recently, someone going to prison as the safest hideout, just can't remember where or when - in any event, yes, you could poke some holes in that plot development, but it gives Kerr the chance to show the apotheosis of the Nazi regime - all the goose stepping and saluting and patriotic blather leads to this. In same ways, though, the Dachau depiction is not as strong as the rest of the novel because it's so familiar to us, from movies and from first-hand accounts. The strength of the novel comes from Kerr's ability to show the life of ordinary German people, some horrible, some indifferent, none heroic, as the country goes down the road of fascism and racism - the street life is more revelatory than the prison camps. Like much detective fiction, March Violets gets strangled, by the end, by all the strands of the plot - I just plain could not keep all the people, all the twists, straight in my mind, even with the lengthy expositions that Kerr at times has to fall back on as a narrative lifesaver. I probably won't go further w/ this trilogy, but for fans of detective and crime fiction this is a pretty good twist on the noir genre and lingo, much of which you have to love: a snapper (prostitute), cement (prison), lighter (gun), and many more.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Smart story, The Burglary, in current New Yorker that manages four parallel narraatives

Unusual and provocative short story in current New Yorker, The Burglar, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum - in which she tells four parallel narratives in a series of isolated paragraphs: a young mom returns home from workout and finds a burglar in her house (at first, as she hears someone upstairs, she thinks it's her husband home unexpectedly but when she calls out and the burglar responds: It's the cleaning service, she believes that - rather stupidly - as she was in fact waiting for exterminators to come for an estimate), the burglar - we see it from his perspective, as he cases out the house, overcomes the dog, thinks to call out "cleaning service" and is shocked she believes him; the husband, who is a writer on a TV series, his first network job, and he's with a team putting together an absurd story line about an ex-con (black) who gets out after 50 years in Attica and goes on a rampage killing white women - the writing team obviously has no idea what it's doing and keeps talking about being "edgy" and the husband feels increasingly alienated and ashamed of where this project is going but recognizes this is his one big chance and they need the $; and the 4th narrative is seemingly the narrative the husband is writing, a black man casing a neighborhood and approaching a house - his/her house - as a burglary is in progress. Whew. But because of Bynum's clear writing, thoughtful pacing, and careful plot design the story is easy to follow and it's absorbing: superficially we are engaged with the actual burglary, what will happen, who will be hurt, will he be caught; and on a deeper level it pushes us to wonder about why we're "entertained" by this story, what are our presuppositions and prejudices about who would commit a break-in and why; and on another level it pushes us to wonder about the entertainment industry and its (our) relentless appetite for crime and mayhem and a "twist" - and maybe literary fiction, seeking to "make it new," has a bit of that as well.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Berhard Gunther's moral neutrality and what that means for us today

Part of the MO of heroes of noir detective/mystery fiction is that the protagonist is morally neutral - they don't hold political views, they have a moral code but it's their own, not imposed from outside by a faith or an organization or even a system of beliefs, they are indiscriminate in whom they work with, work for, befriend, or love - and perhaps because they have to work with thugs and crooks they make no judgments about people based on their race, class, or trade - in fact, they often believe that there's more honor among thieves, or that "to live outside the law you must be honest." This moral neutrality principle is tested to the extreme in Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir series, in that the neutral protagonist, Bernhard Gunther, is a private detective working in Berlin in 1935, on the eve of the Berlin Olympiad, with Nazi troops goose-stepping and saluting everywhere, the race and anti-semitic laws in effect, crowds of drunken thugs singing "patriotic" songs and saluting Hitler, and many more atrocities and more to come. We want, we expect a hero to take a stand against the Nazis, but Gunther never does so - though he clearly loathes their stupidity and the fake patriotism, and he even has some sympathy for the Jews of Berlin - but he's not a resister (read Every Man Dies Alone if that's what you want), and he is acutely aware of the fate in store for resisters, Communists especially. Nor is he a sympathizer or collaborator - though he often feels compelled to give the salute, and in fact the complex plot has him working for Prime Minister Goering - though I suspect he may double-cross that bastard later in the novel - but watching how even this generally good man must take on the gestures and even trappings of Nazism just to get along with his life and his profession does make us think: How many others giving the salute were torn up inside, were doing so just to get along? That makes it no more right - and it's easy for today's vantage to say they should have resisted - and risked being beaten and thrown into the river - but his reluctant compliance feels more honest and more likely than a fatalistic heroism - and makes us think what we'd do ourselves if faced with a crowd of thugs enthralled to a hate-mongering, ego-maniacal, power-crazed bully and orator - though that could never happen today, could it?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Why to read the Berlin Noir series

Philip Kerr's March Violets, first volume of his Berlin Noir trilogy, is great in many ways - but there's two things you don't want. First, don't obsess about the plot. There are so many twists, turns, encounters, and those fortunate events that populate most mystery/detective novels in which the protag just happens to meet a character who can fill him (that is, us) on every bit of background, etc. So just keep reading; don't worry too much about who dunnit or how. Second, you don't want Kerr (or his alter ego, Bernhard Gunther) describing you! Every character Gunther comes across gets a description, and, w/ the exception of the various "dames," every character is weirdly, hideously ugly - eyebrows like mangy caterpillars is just one phrase I can recall among the many. This novel pulls us in opposite directions: On the one hand, it's incredibly fun to read, not just the description of the characters but the noir writing w/ many similes and images, he out Chandlers Chandler - you could pick a page almost at random and get a great phrase or two or even more - he can't resist piling them up and you sometimes think, stop, you're blowing all your ammunition on a minor character or peripheral observation - but he's get a wealth of imagery to draw upon. What do I remember? How about nervous as a trout on a marble platter. Or cold as a treasure chest 50 fathoms deep. So, yes, fun to read - but on the other hand horrifying and frightening, far more than most innocuous noir fiction because it's not just the city and its moods and neighborhoods, like Spenser's Boston, say, but in this case it's Berlin 1935 and the background is that of storm-troopers, Gestapo thugs, Hitler and his propaganda machine, marching bands, Seig Heil salutes, and plenty of references to the fate of the Jews, selling their belongings, deprived of livelihood, desperate to leave and not convinced that what's happening all around them is real. So Kerr is playing for high stakes - it's both a detective yarn and a social commentary, historical fiction about the darkest moment in 20th-century history. Recently I posted on Modiano, for whom the crimes of the Nazis and the Occupying forces are beyond the margins, vanished but present by their absence; for Kerr the horrors of that era on the margin, still in the picture, looming and threatening everyone, forcing people - though not yet Gunther - in moral crisis and ethical dilemmas: cooperate? collaborate? lie? fight? flee?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Hardboiled fiction via the German Reich

On suggestion of friend PP started Philip Kerr's March Violets, first vol of his "Berlin Noir" trilogy, from about 1990; Kerr is a Scot, this series of his novels - maybe many more of his novels too I don't know - are set in Berlin (obviously) in about 1935, so they're noir in a double-sense: the story on the surface is exactly like about a thousand sets of American crime fiction, the solitaire detective nursing his loneliness and isolation (in this case, Gunther, a private detective, formerly on the police force not on his own, widowed, heavy drinker, small office space in a shambles, run by an efficient secretary, and so on - all very familiar), and the plot involves a private but politically connected industrialist-millionaire whose daughter has been found shot to death, along w/ her somewhat shady husband, in their mansion, which someone, the killer presumably, set on fire presumably to destroy the evidence. So far, all pretty familiar stuff - but what raises this novel to a higher level is the politically fraught setting. All the noirish events of the narrative pale beside the deeply troubling events in German society going on outside the door, and Kerr does not shrink from these: the attacks on the Jews and the race laws, the parades and political rallies that everyone must listen to live or on radio, the thugs in taverns chanting "patriotic" songs - and most of all the need for a good, apolitical man like Gunther to make a show of participation or else risk getting attacked by gangs of thugs. Kerr does a great job maintaining Gunther's moral neutrality - he's willing to do business w/ Jews despite the race laws, because as he puts it their money is as good as anyone else's, and he loathes the fake patriotism, the bullying, and the people now advertising their business as "German" - but he's not leading any sort of fight or uprising against the Nazi hordes, he's just trying to get along - though sometimes, as w/ all detectives in this genre, he's too much of a wise guy and mouths off at the wrong time. I have to also hand it to Kerr - his research is seamless and impeccable, never feels bookish, and he's captures the Chandler-like tough-guy tone filled with argot (Gunther asks about a cracked safe if there were any "piano players," i.e., fingerprints) and acerbic wit.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

What makes Patrick Modiano's fiction so compelling?

A few further thoughts on Patrick Modiano, having finished treading he collection Suspended Sentences, as to what makes his work so compelling and unusual: he is above all else a writer of contradictions. You start reading any of his works (I've read 4 now) and it feels like you're entering an old-fashioned noirish crime or detective story - the narrator is trying to unlock some secret, usually from his past - how did the young couple that used to live in his building die? who are the people to whom he was entrusted as a 10-year-old while his parents were away for a year? - and we gradually realize that we will never get to an answer or conclusion, that these questions, like much of life, are unanswerable and unknowable. But the narrator's attempt to uncover past secrets leas him down unanticipated byways - almost always involving a complex network of Paris streets and neighborhoods, all w/ strange names, all of them dark and lonely, often industrial or commercial, far off from the areas tourists see, and sometimes the neighborhoods are long gone but he recollects visits from his youth (touches of Sebald here) - and through his searches he approaches a deeper mystery: What did his father do during the war and the Occupation? He keeps approaching the knowledge that his father was a gangster and that the gangs were collaborators - but he never quite gets the details in order - people keep vanishing, from his world and from his memory. And that pushes him to an even deeper and more unsettling question: What did France do during the war and the Occupation? How many people "disappeared"? Truth always just eludes him, however - he meets characters who seem to have a story to tell, but their identities are always slippery, living under false names, with stolen IDs, getting by in the present (in this volume, the early 1990s) by erasing their own histories. Modiano creates many great scenes and encounters, but they often lead the narrative not to revelations and destinations but to detours and blind alleys. Modiano is clearly not a writer for all tastes, but he has established his place somewhere between the noir tradition of American detective fiction and the postmodernism of French intellectuals of the 80s and 90s, a place all his own.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Why Modiano writes about crime and disappearance

Another part of the literary lineage - or perhaps more accurately, literary fraternity - for Patrick Modiano (in previous posts I have noted his affinity w/ Auster and Sebald) is definitely the American noir writers - from a previous generation certainly Hammet and Chandler, and more recently maybe Letham? - in his ability to establish a dark, mysterious mood closely associated w/ particular urban neighborhoods; also see connections between his work and Bolano - the formal experimentation with some grounding in realism/naturalism rather than the more playful and imaginative experimentation of, say, Borges or French modernists such as Robbe-Grillet et al. - and behind all of this, of course, looms the spirit of Proust - how? - because of his fascination with even fixation on place names and their evocative qualities. For an American reader, known almost nothing about the many streets, squares, neighborhoods, villages, islands that he mentions there are no direct associations (as there are when say Lethem notes particular Brooklyn locales) but the names are so evocative I thought he might be making them up, but a quick check on Isle des Loups (Wolf Island) in the Marne, and on some other spots, showed that no, these are real names. So how can a name evoke something when we have no direct association with it at all - the opposite of Proust's madeleine, they should be completely association-free, but that's part of the mystery, or of Modiano's skill, that when he talks about Paris streets and neighborhoods we get a sense of the landscape from just the words. Hard to explain. Am reading the 3rd novella in the Yale collection, Suspended Sentences, this one called Flowers of Ruin (accurate translation of the title this time), an obvious homage to Baudelaire. This is the most challenging of the 3 novellas: in Modiano's first-person voice, remembering a time in the 60s when he lived w/ girlfriend in an isolated and impoverished section of Paris and in their neighborhood a terrible event had occurred in the 1930s: a young couple who usually kept to themselves went out for a night of dinner and drinks and came home and died in a murder suicide. Investigations showed no crime, but indicated they'd met up with 4 others over the course of their last night; Modiano tried track down those people, which leads him to some strange encounters - people who'd lived in that era under fake names and false identities - and it eventually touches on his father - also referenced in the previous novella - who worked w some gangsters, was imprisoned during the occupation, then mysteriously sprung free. Obviously this is another Modiano work about disappearance and hidden crimes  - and an oblique reference once again to the rise of Nazism (crime in the 1930s) and the hidden secrets of French collaboration (the gangsters w/ whom his father associated could not have run wine from Bordeaux to Paris without cutting deals with the Nazis). He's looking to solve one crime and in doing so offering peeks at and hints about a far greater crime that is hiding in plain sight.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Modiano and the erasure of memory

2nd novella in the Yale UP edition of 3 Patrick Modiano novellas - each orig published separately ca 1990 - is the title piece of this collection, Suspended Sentences. Here's another example of the translator taking liberties and actually surpassing the author with this title: which in French was I think Remise Peine - I think a literal translation would be Reduced Sentence, but maybe that could be Suspended (i.e., Remitted), and is Peine sentence, or punishment? In any event, Suspended Sentences, the translator making it plural, gives a great double-meaning to this strange novella. The story is roughly this: an adult man ca 1990 looks back on his childhood sometime in the postwar years, maybe late 1940s, when he was 10; his mother is an actor and she goes off god knows where on a long tour, and his father is in some kind of intl business and stops by on occasional pass-throughs in Paris - and the boy and his younger brother are entrusted to a household of 3 women, one a retired circus performer, the other 2 involved in some kind of nightclub in Montmartre. This is a story of absences and emptiness: the boy goes through a year or so in this situation, and it's obvious to us though not quite to him that the family he's with and their wealthy friends from Paris are involved in some kind of criminal scheme. The story builds to a conclusion at which the one day the boy comes home from school and everyone's gone and the place is cleared out. Over time, in later years, he tries to track down some of the people w/ whom he'd crossed paths during that year - with little luck - a very persistent theme in Modiano's work, the failed historical (personal) investigation. The entire story is about mood and missed connections - the boy seems to be having a good time throughout with his brother and some friends, but we know all along something is terribly wrong. We learn by the end that the whole gang was arrested for racketeering - and there are some strange hints, as well, that their criminal enterprises had something to do with selling goods that the Nazis had seized from Jews. Just as the first novella in this collection is about disappearing - as millions of people did during the war, either living in hiding or dying - this one is about the erasure from time and memory of an organized crime: can there be criminal activity going on all around us and we're unaware, like the 10-year-old boy? Of course - an entire nation closed its eyes to criminality and barbarism. As I describe Modiano I realize that I make him sound both better and worse than he actually is: On the one hand, these are not exciting mystery stories - they are mysterious but not mysteries, so you won't get clues, surprises, plot resolutions. On the other hand, the stories will not confound you like so many others that play w/ time, space, and narrative reliability: they are simple and pretty easy to follow, and engaging. The obvious comparison among his contemporaries is the great Sebald, who should have won a Nobel (as Modiano did) but these are less researched and less driven by eccentric and obsessed characters), but they share the same need to unearth the truth behind an elusive narrative.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The dark truth at the heart of Modiano's fiction

Patrick Modiano is the quintessential European (French) writer, and good evidence of that is his recent collection from Yale UP of three novellas, each of which had been published separartely between about 1988-1994, roughly; read the first in the collection last night, called Afterimage - but the translator is taking some liberty there, as the original title was Chien de printemps, i.e., either Spring Dog or Dog of Spring, take your pick - a dog does play a very minor role in the story (a stray follows the central character, Jansen, into his Paris apartment and then is seen no more) and you know what, Afterimage is a far better title so let's let it go at that: Story is by an "unnamed" narrator who, circa 1990, is recalling a photographer he met and befriended back in the '60s - the photog, Jansen, took a pic of the narrator and his then-girlfriend and asked if he could use them in a photo shoot he was hired to do for a US mag., and the friendship began. The much younger narrator goes to the photg's apartment, very sparsely furnished; he takes on the task of cataloging the photog's complete works, stills carefully labeled but stuffed into three suitcases. The narrator has full use of the apartment, and Jansen is almost never there - but people call for him, ask for him, especially a young woman w/ whom he'd apparently had a brief affair. There's another woman as well, Charlotte (I think), and strangely the narrator recalls that he knew Charlotte quite well when he was very young. Eventually, Jansen leaves for Mexico, leaving everything behind, and falling out of the narrator's life - and he's unable to reconnect, even as he searches for some of Jansen's friends whom he'd met along the way. At one moment, the narrator strangely observes that maybe his name is Jansen as well, and maybe he is Jansen. OK so we get the very European narration about narration, narrators within narrators - and we can see why Paul Auster is the only contemporary American writer truly embraced by the French. But this novella if we can call it that has a much darker truth behind it than do most of Auster's jeux: Modiano is of the generation that survived, barely, the Occupation - and we can begin to understand his obsession with disappearance: Not only can a character like Jansen just disappear, vanish at will, erase himself - so many people in France in the 1940s disappeared, and against their will - but the darker question is: Can the history of French collaboration, and of Nazi oppression, just disappear from memory?Can history be erased? Can we live without responsibility for our action, or inaction?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Any sense to this ending?: Thoughts about the conclusion of A God in Ruins

Spoilers coming: The conclusion of Kate Atkinson's novel A God in Ruins is either a neat surprise or an authorial cop-out, depending on your tolerance as a reader for self-reflexive novels, fiction about fiction - let's not call it postmodern, because I think we're way beyond that era and this novel is distinctly modernist from the first chapter onward, but at the end - while the main character, Teddy, is on his last bombing mission in WWII, plane losing altitude, and we're waiting to see how he recovers - the novel, told out of chronological sequence - has many chapters about Teddy's postwar life, his marriage, children, grandchildren, as well as many references to his time spent at the end of the war as a POW - Atkinson has the plane crash land and Teddy dies - and then she steps in an tells us, see that's what fiction can do, that's what authors can do, and now, she says, imagine all of the other characters and how their lives will be different without Teddy, and she spins a little plot summary for most of the main characters. Is this a satisfactory ending? I was brought up short, I admit, and I'm not sure what value is added to the novel by this breaking down of the "fourth wall" - but Atkinson does get us to think about fact and fiction, in this novel so closely based on her assiduous research into the war - she lists sources at the end, as if this were a work of nonfiction. I learned only from her long author's note at the end that this novel is a "companion" to her previous one, Life After Life, which is she notes about Teddy's sister Ursula, who, I'm guessing, lives several different fictional lives (another Woolf echo); I wonder if the previous volume explored in any depth the curious hint at the outset of A God in Ruins that Teddy may have been his Aunt Izzie's son, born out of wedlock and given up for adoption - nothing more was made of that fact in God in Ruins. In any event, quibble about the ending or even rage against it as you will, but ending aside it's a powerful work of late modernism and yet another English take on the effects of war on national culture and domestic life.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Plot, character, and why Atkinson works in the tradition of Virginia Woolf

The last chapters of Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins toggle between the last days of Teddy's life - he is +90 in a nursing home (a "care home") and not responding much if at all to what people are saying to and around him - we again see daughter Viola as a selfish and unsympathetic character (I still have trouble seeing her as a writer, one of the few flaws in this novel I think) and we see that he had a good relationship w/ grad-daughter, Bertie: we pick up a bit on Bertie's life, which has been almost a peripheral subject for Atkinson, and we see her meet the man who will become her husband as they're crossing Westminster Bridge (this section of the novel filled w/ allusions to British poetry and poetic drama - fun for literary types, i.e, most of her readers - we enjoy the game: can you source this quote...? ) . Most important chapter though is Teddy's last flight - again, KA does a great job making the bombing run to Nuremberg seem real, frightening - and offset by the cool insouciance of Teddy and the other members of his crew: great job of using research well to create historical fiction, rather than just to show off how much the author knows, learns, has read (remember the Children's Book?). The final chapters will obviously be Teddy's death in the care home and a chapter on his time as a POW (the plane crash lands on the way back from the bombing run) and, perhaps, his return to civilization, peace, and Nancy - but the novel is already quite an accomplishment, as complex and deep (or round) a creation of a literary character as in any recent novel - it's not a novel about plot, and even at the end my initial impression holds true: Atkinson works in the tradition of Woolf, a character developed as though through many brush strokes on a canvas, rather than through conflict and change over time.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A narrator unusual in contemporary fiction - a devout young man not the object of condescension

Kevin Canty's story in current New Yorker, God's Work, is another variant on the coming-of-age, first-love/crush story - the variant being in this case that the teenage boy is a devout Christian who spends a lot of his time, sometimes against his will or, perhaps, against his instincts (hormones?), with his mother leafleting for their church or attending prayer meetings. It's summer vacation, and story opens with them ringing doorbells, hoping to distribute flyers and draw people to their church. His mother seems to be a soft-spoken and charitable young woman - we don't learn too much about her - and the boy, the narrator, is very much under her wing. Few people invite them in but one who does is a somewhat threatening-looking man who invites them in for coffee and engages in some provocative discussion - he doesn't believe in god or an afterlife. Turns out his daughter is a year ahead of the narrator in school and a good-looking girl who dresses flamboyantly. He's very embarrassed that she sees him in these circumstances - but as it turns out, she starts to attend services, dresses modestly, asks him to join her on a walk - and although his mother is at first skeptical (she offers to chaperon the walk!), the boy "prays on it" on goes out a few times with the young woman. He's very drawn to her, wishes they could kiss or more, is unable, however, approach her without agonizing guilt. She continues to come to church and then, one day, her father shows up, makes a scene and drags her out of the church - and next time boy and mother pass their house they're gone, end of story. It seems very credible and it's told from the viewpoint of a character not often seen in contemporary fiction - a devout young man who's not the object of scorn or condescension - and there are some mysterious edges to the story - for example, who's the boy's father? he's never even alluded to - but the story does lack a little bit of punch - the true conflict not erupting until the very end and then left a bit to the sideline. The girl is the most intriguing character in the story, and we just don't know enough about her point of view or about her relationship with the troubling father, even beyond the scope of the story - although maybe Canty isn't through with this character yet, who knows.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

A harrowing chapter about death - in A God in Ruins

Kate Atkinson continues a run a truly impressive chapters in A God in Ruins, it's tempting to say each could stand alone as a story but I don't think that's quite true in that part of their efficacy and beauty is how carefully and thoughtfully she has built up the background of each of the characters, Teddy especially. The chapter I read last night brought us at last to the early death of Teddy's wife/Viola's mother, Nancy - hinted at and alluded to in many early chapters, though never quite explained until this late chapter,when we see her suffering from and dying from brain cancer. Those of us who have witnessed this disease will be particularly moved by this chapter, of course, but it speaks to a universal fear and horror, of literally losing control of one's mind and one's perceptions. The chapter concludes w/ the harrowing scene, deftly shifting in and out of Nancy's consciousness, as she plays the piano - she thinks she is at last playing beautifully a difficult Chopin piece but as we shift outside her pov we recognize that she is just smashing her hands against the keyboard, deeply upsetting young daughter, Viola. Then in an even more astonishing scene, which Atkinson develops very carefully, laying the groundwork early on, Teddy comes through on his promise to kill Nancy if needed - in this case he follows one of her suggestions, which he initially said he could never do, and smothers her in a pillow - and then we realize that Viola is watching this action, which must be incredibly traumatizing and helps explain her difficult life-long relationship w/ her father. Terrific scene - but I do have to raise a quibble with this section, in that I found it impossible to believe that Nancy would go off for various treatments and consultations while lying to Teddy and telling him she's visiting her sisters. That's so unlikely as to seem like an author's trick to build tension and mystery - a rare mis-step by Atkinson, in my view.

Friday, April 1, 2016

English insouciance about death - in World War II and in A God in Ruins

Back to Teddy Todd's war experiences in the next chapter in Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins, as we go to 1943, when he's beginning as a bomber pilot, hasn't yet done his scariest missions, he's adopted a stray dog who actually goes as a stow-away on one of the bombing missions and the soldiers have to share their oxygen w/ the poor mutt - another truly English theme, as we know the English seem to like their dogs more than their kids, who are just in the way and need to be shipped off to boarding school. The main theme to this chapter seems to be the English insouciance about death, the sense that any of them, even people not in service but living in London during the bombings - something that we Americans have never experienced - recognize that they might die at any time, which leads to lots of quick affairs and to a general lack of commitment to anything long term. Teddy becomes engaged to Nancy, whom we know that he will marry (and lose at a relatively young age) - but at the time of their engagement he thinks it's absurd to imagine anything "after the war" - he is so certain that he will die in service. He has a brief, passionate affair w/ a very beautiful and wealthy woman - they visit her house in Regents Park, where the paintings, including a Rembrandt, are kept under wraps - she offers him the Rembrandt but he declines, later regrets that as the house and its contents were later destroyed by a bomb. The whole brief relationship has the feel or a dream or a dare - and he is almost completely indifferent years later when he learns she was killed in by a bomb. This chapter is a great example of how the war changed England, seemingly forever but at least for 2 generations. We've seen this in a ton of fiction already - Atonement one great recent example - so this chapter feels a bit less fresh and original than others, such as the bomber pilot 1944 chapter, which was about as vivid as war writing can get.