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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

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Three stories from Lucia Berlin's most mature phase as a writer

The stories in the last 100 or so pp of Lucia Berlin's A Manual for Cleaning Women, presumably written toward the end of her writing life (I'm assuming the collection is arranged roughly in order of composition or publication) show a maturity and complexity not evident in her earlier work, fine and surprising and unconventional as that work may have been. In one of these stories she says of herself (I'm identifying the narrator w/ the author here) that she didn't mind describing the most embarrassing and humiliating moments of her life so long as she could make the scene funny - and she always does! But in these later stories we movie not in a new direction but at least off at a new angle: for the first time she has a narrator, occasionally, not closely identified w/ the author. Also, the stories are longer, more complex in point of view (sometimes shifting POV by section), and for the first time they have a narrative arc; her stories up to this point were generally more like memories or establishment of a single scene or, in essay-like fashion, a single setting ( a hospital ER, a detox center). 3 of the longer stories are of particular not: Let Me See You Smile, to me the least successful of this triad, is her first w/ a narrator unlike herself, a male defense attorney who takes on a case of a woman who was harassed and beaten by the police. The story doesn't quite work for me in that she is uncertain about the narrative voice, cannot really explain why the narrator was so taken w/ or smitten by the woman and her seedy friends, doesn't build enough sympathy for the victim. But two other longer stories are very powerful, almost classics: Carmen, about a young pregnant woman who goes on a drug run for her ne'er do well husband (this has the ring of autobiographical authenticity, but I think probably even more extreme that Berlin's troubled life), a terrific narrative with a kicker line at the end. Equally good and much more of a social commentary is Mejito (sp?), about a teenage Mexican immigrant, pregnant, and left to fend for herself when her boyfriend goes to jail. Her dealing with the social services and the medical services for the indigent is so truthful and frightening - you kind of wish everyone who chants "build a wall" could read this story - although part of its power is its moral neutrality leaving us to form our own opinion about the woman, her guilt, her innocence, her complicity, her victimhood. This one, too, has a kicker end line.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Reading Berlin's fiction - a memoir in fits and starts

Probably no one should read Lucia Berlin's A Manual for Cleaning Women the way I'm reading it - 400 pp., maybe 75 stories?, straight through; this is a collection of her lifetime of work (complete collection of all of her stories?), published I think in 3 volumes, each small-press, during her lifetime; I don't believe she ever published a novel, not sure if she even tried that form. So to read everything straight through over the course of a few days - I'm about 3/4 through - gives a misimpression: there's lot's of repetition, the same themes and characters working through the same conditions time and again. In a sense that would be true of many other writers - reading through a collection that spans a lifetime of work gives insight into their character and personality that reading any one story or even any one collection from a period of their life cannot. But Berlin's case is extreme. Among writers, she's particularly blessed and cursed by a troubled and complex life story, privileged but damaging upbringing, multiple family re-locations including many yeas in South America, several tough marriages, continued battle w/ addiction. All of this gives her "material" but also gives her obsessions that she must work out through fiction. Her writing is great, but her scope is limted: 3/4 of the way through and every single story has a narrator or protagonist who is unmistakably Berlin herself. The story I just started last night is the first that breaks that mold, to a degree - with a narrator (for at least part of the story, a very long story by Berlin standards, with multiple POVs), is a defense attorney. To read through Manual as I am doing, then, is to read what seems like a memoir in fragments, in fits and starts (this may change in the final stories - written during a time when she had found sobriety and academic success), which may not be what Berlin intended - who knows exactly what she intended or why she wrote? to make a living? to earn recognition? to wrestle with her demons? to connect? - but it's a way to appreciate the greatness of her accomplishment and to wonder about what might have been.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Popular fiction by Faulkner

The 100 Years of Best American Short Stories includes one from William Faulkner that as far as I know isn't widely red - That Will Be Fine; the editors were restricted to stories that had appeared in BASS collections of the past so the Faulkner pickings may have been thin. That Will Be Fine isn't Faulkner at his best (nor at his weirdest and most demanding, it's a pretty straightforward piece, for him), but it typifies a few Faulkner traits, notably: really good, witty dialogue; sensitivity to children and their view of the world; immersion in the Deep South and its class and race dominated social culture. This story is entirely narrated by a 7-year-old boy, Georgie, and the trick is that we as readers always understand way more than he does (sometimes WF pushes that beyond credibility, but still). The boy "works for" his troubled Uncle Rodney, which is to say he takes on minor chores for which he hopes to be paid a dime (later a quarter, or as Uncle Rodney promises, 20 quarters) that he can use to buy an xmas present for his elderly grandfather - he worries that nobody will buy the grandfather a present because he's too old. Rodney, however, is a schemer and a womanizer, and he uses Georgie to help him escape from his creditors, from the law, and, finally, to help him abduct (or try to) another man's wife (along w/ her jewelry), and the incident comes to no good end (for Rodney). The boy ends up thinking he'll get a few coins for his work (he doesn't understand that Rodney never intended to pay him, nor - at the end - that a group of men in the small town have shot Rodney to death), hence the title. This story doesn't have the grandeur of, say, The Bear or Wild Horses, but it's a good example of Faulkner in his commercial phase, in the days when there was a huge market for popular short stories, and we can see that this one pushes  popular fiction toward high literary style: the bidge between this and As I Lay Dying is not that long a span.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Every undergrad has tried to write like Lucia Berlin; few can do it

They say "write what you know," and every undergrad writing student, every grad student for that matter, has tried to do that: I'll do a really short piece about a guy I've observed in the Laundromat. About a family dinner conversation. About me and my sibs watching a carpy show on TV. About my time in the hospital. About my first job. A series of letters to a friend during my first year at college. About my first dance, kiss, sex. About my favorite/worst teacher. And so on. And it's not that easy - 99.9 percent of these are of no interest to anyone but the author, at best they're warm-up exercises. But Lucia Berlin brings them to a much higher level of achievement almost every time. Somehow, when she writes about her experience - the list above touches on some of her stories, and all of her stories seem to be about the vagaries of her life - she's not much of one for invention, it seems - the stories always have significance and resonance: we recognize ourselves in her stories (sometimes) or we fully identify with the narrator (author) and come to understand her life, so different from ours, from most, a life full of pain, suffering, bad decisions, and tentative recovery. I don't have a clear sense of the chronology of her stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women, but I'm guessing they appear in roughly order of composition or publication? It would make sense because the stories in the last third seem more reflective and more developed - she really at that point in her career seemed to be trying to make sense of her life experiences - not just a cri de ceur but a looking back, recherche des temps perdu, or maybe de vie perdu.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Lucia Merlin and the space between her stories

So many of Lucia Berlin's stories are about addiction, in particular alcoholism, and in a few brushstrokes she paints a picture of the torment alcoholics and other addicts experience, literally grapple with every day. Some of her pieces are short, sketches more than stories; the cumulative effect is a portrait of a way of life, actually of her life, and we of course get the sense that she composed the stories in moments of lucidity, between which there were expanses of blackness. So few have chronicled this way of life so well - with no self-pity, bitterness, or condemnation of society, parents, children, poverty. In fact, it appears that Berlin was privileged from birth and well-educated - not that among those she crosses with in detox aren't intelligent, wily, survivors - but few have had the advantages Berlin had, which makes her story in some ways more poignant - and also, her education and intelligence give her the skills to tell her life story, in fragments, very well. Yes, A Manual for Cleaning Women is long, covering the span of a writer's life, so there's repetition - a selected stories might have been more powerful (and I do wish there were more info on dates of composition and publication, if there were recoverable) and very few seem to be mis-steps (I wish she hadn't gone back, in another guise, to visit the Mexican diver: the first story about the diver was one of her best, and it's diminished by a later story in which the diver is old and wealthy and his little remote strand of beach is now a Club Med), but there's a cumulative effect as well: each story is like drowning person's gasp for air, and we recognize that intervals between the story may have been desperate times for the author - who later emerges to tell her tale w/ mordant wit.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Impressive and sorrowful story in current New Yorker - Fable

Really impressive, sad, unconventional, quirky story, Fable, by Charles Yu, in current New Yorker, almost a "real-time" story in that the entire narrative takes place during a single therapy session, 50 minutes usually, and I think that's about the time it would take you to read it (aloud) - female therapist about whom we know nothing, male patient, and though we don't know his presenting diagnosis, he seems anxious and depressed, therapist asks him to describe his life as if it were a fable and, with some hostile resistance, he gives her a one-sentence "Once upon a time" about a man who realizes his life has come to nothing. She draws him out a bit, and he ventures onto a longer, and then an even longer, fable-like account of his life (Once there was a man who was a lawyer ... ) with several painful, awkward pauses and interruption - and in the course of this narration we do get an entire picture of a life, a lonely man with low self-esteem, an awkward marriage, birth of a child who they learn has severe disabilities, the way in which the child puts stress on the marriage, and, as he grows, isolates them from their peers and friends - probably very accurate, and painful in the extreme. I think it's rare that a short story can tell a whole life story - usually there's too much summary - but this story seems to have just the right amount of credible detail, the suffering narrator comes alive with all his pain and loneliness, and it doesn't feel as if this should really be a novel - it's just the right amount of pathos as it is. I don't know anything else about Yu but will watch for more work by him.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

More impressive stories from Lucia Berlin - only one of which is conventional in form

Still stunned and impressed by Lucia Berlin's stories in her posthumous collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women. They are unconventional by any measure, and some seem as if they should more properly be called essays, although maybe calling them fiction gives her greater latitude with fact and detail?, but the two pieces about her time, or the narrator's time in any event, working in a hospital ER as an intake clerk, are both chilling and terrific, giving us a sense of what life is like in an urban hospital ER that deals with everything from the most serious trauma to the oddballs who show up every couple of days with a new complaint - their true malady is that they're sad and lonely. In one of these stories, Temps Perdu (yes we get the reference) a hospital patient reminds her of a childhood friend and the story artfully moves back and forth in time, excellent and uncompromising on both ends of the spectrum. I'm about 150 pp in (it's a 400 p collection) and only one story is a traditional is style and structure; that is, none of the others has a true arc of narrative, many are not even about the one single epiphanic moment (some are), and in all but one the narrator is clearly a persona of the author. The exception - she probably did it just to show she could - is Todos anos, todas dias - sorry, my Spanish is non-existent, but it translates something like, All the years, all the days - is about a recently widowed, middle-aged woman from Colorado, a high-school Spanish teacher with a seemingly drab and timid personality, who goes on summer vacation in Mexico, starts off at a resort where she's awkward and lonely, then ventures off and ends up staying in a fishing village where she goes diving with men of the village to spear-hunt and to harvest clams: it reminded me throughout of Lawrence at his best, but actually more appealing than DHL because from a feminine (and more credible) perspective and because devoid of the reactionary political undertones (or overtones). Another great story involves Berlin as a young girl in a posh school in Chile - her father, as we learn, I believe this hews to the facts, was a highly prominent mining engineer - where she is taken in by a leftist teacher, whom she really doesn't like very much - at that age her political sympathies were entirely aligned with her social set, very surprising when we know of her accomplishments, and troubles, as an adult - and whom she cruelly dismisses at the end of the story, tossing her away like a Kleenex - a story of American imperialism from a completely fresh perspective.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Never read anything quite like Lucia Berlin's stories

I've never read anything quite like Lucia Berlin's stories collected in her posthumous and, sadly, only truly well-known collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women. How to put it? No other writer I know of has written with such directness and honesty about frightful and dismal subjects, all seemingly just on the edge of autobiographical, but with such a lively and witty style, as if she's not seeking attention and certainly not seeking pity but just giving us access to her complex and troubled life. Among the first 15 or so stories in the collection - and each story (w/ one or two exceptions) is quite short, almost just a sketch: a terrific and strange account of the friendship she builds with an Apache man as their paths (and lives) cross in a Laundromat - and at the end he just plain doesn't show up there any more and it takes her some time to realize that; recovering from a serious alcohol binge in the detox ward, and at the end driving away (in car she damaged during binge) and parking at an overlook and thinking about a grocery list - are there any other stories that link such sorrow and depravity with tender domesticity? Another: at an abortion clinic in Juarez - sad, scary, and the narrator is entirely nonplussed and obviously smarter and more socially competent than most of the people she meets during her troubled journeys. And the title story - a little longer, a little more of a concept piece, a story with a title that leaps out at us now (probably didn't so much when written in the 70s maybe?) of a Berkeley-area cleaning woman who obviously learns from her work about the secret lives and sorrows of others, the story punctuated by bus journeys (including the names of the routes) and occasional parenthetic suggestions for other cleaning women. I'm afraid with all this I have not put my finger on exactly what makes her work stand out - definitely one element would be the topical descriptions, which are often just lists, and that verge on objectivist poetry (with which she was connected by marriage and friendship). The collection has a thoughtful biographical note - the stories stand on their own, but it's also helpful to understand their conditions of composition; I wish it also had better documentation of when the stories were written, and when and where published.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Modiano's most accessible novel

in the Cafe of Lost Youth is definitely Patrick Modiano's most accessible novel, a good place for readers new to him to start. Unlike some of his other novels - all of them short, about 100+ pp - the narrative structure is fairly simple and consistent - four sections, each with a different first--person narrator, that describe life among a group of students and hangers-on in a Left Bank cafe, probably in the 1970s?, w/ a focus on a young woman of mysterious background and, as we learn in the last of the 4 sections, her relationship with another habitue, Roland, who seems to be much like Modiano. The first 3 sections are contemporary accounts of the events - the woman (Louki)  leaving her husband, her account of her wayward childhood, the detective's account of his search for Louki - and the last section reflects back on the events for the present (novel written in 2007). The novel does have the familiar Modiano touches, in particular his obsession w/ cafes and nightclubs and w/ off-the-track Paris neighborhoods - in this novel he refers to them as "neutral zones," places where people can hide out and where time seems to stand still. Unlike other Modiano novels, there's no reference to the  Occupation, unless it's very indirect (at first I thought losing Louki was symbolic of the repressed memories of the Occupation, but I now think that's a stretch). Essentially, this narrative is a tragic romance, with a bit nostalgie de bou (do I have that right)?) - several poignant reflections about how neighborhoods have changed, the cafe where the narrator and Louki used to hang out is not a boutique leather shop - so typical of revitalized and sanitized and over-priced cities.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Lost youth, lost time, missing persons - Modiano's most conventional novel?

Patrick Modiano's In the Cafe of Lost Youth, 2007?, isn't by any stretch a conventional (short) novel but it's about as close as Modiano ever gets to conventional narrative; I've read the first 3 chapters or sections - 2 more to go I think - and the structure is quite simple: In each a different first-person narrator tells what is roughly the same story. Begins with an account by someone who seems much like Modiano himself, a left-bank student, hanging around the cafe, actual name = Conde (i.e., The Count), with a number of leftist, intellectuals, poseurs, and wanna-be's - they become fascinated by an attractive 20=something woman who goes there and drinks alone, and she is gradually drawn into their orbit, they name her Louki, none is sure of her real name nor of any salient facts about her life - she claims to be a grad student in Asian languages, and she's reading a copy of Lost Horizons and has some mystical ideas. One in the crowd keeps detailed notes about whom they drink w/ every night; a man who claims to be a publisher borrows the notes for one night - and it seems he's interested in learning more about Louki; they suspect it's perhaps for a photo project. Second section tells story from that man's POV, and he is, as we might expect from many other noirish Modiano novels, a private detective hired by "Louki's" husband to find her - we get a very sorrowful scene in which her conventional and somewhat older husband recounts his abandonment. The detective learns her name, of course - Jacqueline - and tells the husband he has no trace of her. 3rd section is hers, and she recounts her nights in an apartment in Pigalle and her wandering the streets while her mother worked in Moulin Rouge, picked up by police a few times for juvenile vagrancy. Each of these sections is pretty clear in itself - but what is the novel about?, that's the mystery. We again see Modiano themes of abandonment by parents, flight, the search for a "missing person," the search for "lost time," though not in the Proustian sense - more a detective's search, following clues, although there is some talk of how sensory experiences, a scent in particular, can bring up a near-lost memory - all, in my view, tied in to his thoughts about the obliteration of the Occupation from French memory - and also his familiar settings - dingy Paris nightclubs and bars, Parisian neighborhoods far from the tourist sites.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Groff story has makings of a thriller but her goals are more elevated

I never really got into Lauren Groff's Fates & Furies though I did admire her clear style and witty observations and asides and both those traits are in force in her captivating, somewhat disturbing story in current New Yorker, The Midnight Zone (don't love the title, had to look it up to remind) in which the narrator is on a roughing-it vacation with husband and two young boys in a remote hunting camp in the Florida swamps (Groff is making a claim to this territory - funny that there are 2 writers "competing" for this turf). They have almost no contact w/ outside world for the week, and narrator is a little freaked out by sounds of Florida panthers near-by, esp at night; husband has to rush back to their home on business for 48 hours, she decides to stay there w/ the boys and, through a stupid and careless accident (she amusingly conveys at the top of the story how she's basically incompetent around the house) she falls and suffers a serious concussion - and the story is about how she and boys cope for a day-and-a-half until husband returns. Could have the making of a thriller or at least a TV movie in this, but her goals are more elevated and we really experience her trial not as a survival story a la, say Gravity or All Is Lost or Room, but as a interior meditation on pain, consciousness, and responsibility. Not sure if this is part of a longer piece - hope not, really, because it stands well on its own, and although I have no way to judge this it certainly seems like she is drawing for and perhaps slightly embellishing some personal experience, which is all to the good - emotion recollected in (near) tranquillity.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Fogiveness and fogetting in Modiano's novels

The last third or so of Patrick Modiano's 1972 novel, Ring Roads, makes explicit some of the key themes that have been latent in his first two novels and the first two-thirds of this one - and that later in his career get much more subtle treatment. The narrator joins his father and father's gangster cronies in the small town outside of Paris to celebrate the wedding of one of the thugs to the niece of another one. Modiano more or less gives up the idea that his narrator is a cop under cover investigating the racketeering - he moves fluidly through his narration (in all of his works) and what's "true" in one section of the novel may no longer hold in a later section. In any event, the wedding celebration is fairly realistic. Throughout, the father never recognizes the narrator as his son - or at least never acknowledges this recognition - and the son hears some vituperative anti-Semitism: none of the others present realize the narrator and his father are Jewish (a theme he treated elsewhere, passing) and ultimately the narrator springs into action and strangles one of the wedding guests to death. Concerned that the murder will be discovered and fearful that the thugs plan to kill his father, he hustles his father away from the celebration, steals a car, heads back into Paris from which they can disappear (I think I have that right - many of Modiano's novels end in a flight and an escape, usually across a border - I may be combining elements). So this section is more direct than anything else he'd written up to that point: this narrative is about the Occcupation, the anti-Semitism, the theft from Jews who were forced to leave, the appropriations, the collaboration, the profiteering (looked back on, at the very end, from a the present day), and we see once again that he writes about the repression of memory and the lack of guilt, the easy with which France assimilated to the post-War world, as a victorious and heroic, long-suffering nation - the complicity was forgotten. In later novels, for the most part, he seldom if every specifies Judiasm or the Occupation - it's all by inference. IN this final section of the novel the narrator repeats several times that he forgives his father for trying to kill him by pushing him in front of a train. That act is never explained, nor is this forgiveness - but it must have to do w/ forgiving the sins of the French nation and Modiano's own personal search for a reconciliation w/ the father who abandoned him (not sure if that's a biographical fact, but the theme comes up again and again in his novels).

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Mysteries and urban-noir and further examples Modiano's emerging style

After the narrator (Patrick Modiano's Ring Roads, 1972), an unnamed cop who is spying on a group of three men, one of whom his estranged father (and who does not recognize his son) leaves the men after a long night's eating and drinking (he's abstemious but has a few shots to keep up), he writes out some notes of what he's learned or observed about the men (they're obviously racketeers in collusion with the Nazis who are occupying France, time is the early 1940s); he gives a concise description of each of the men (plus two women on the scene) but when he comes to his father he says he has no observations or knowledge to share but that adds, oddly, I'll come up with something. Of course Modiano is always playing around on the borders of narrative convention: as the narrator proceeds to describe his early years w/ his father we have to think, well, is this real? or made up? But of course it's a novel, so everything is "made up" and nothing is "real." And so on. I don't think this narrative benefits at all from such whimsy - and I think Modiano moved away from these postmodern affectations in his later work, thankfully. In any event, he describes the time that the young man - then a teenager - spent with his father in Paris: abandoned by parents to live w/ a nasty family while attending the equivalent of high school (or college?) - a themne Modiano will come back to many times, father shows up unexpectedly, son barely knows him at all, father takes son under his care, over next few years they move frequently within Paris, father has some kind of underworld connections (as all this goes on we realize that, if there is any "truth" to this narrative material there is not a chance in the world that his father wouldn't recognize him a decade later), they spend some time examining the abandoned railroad line that circled Paris (a Ring Road, sort of), which his father has some vaguely conceived plan to develop - these explorations of Paris are the first true sign of the urban-noir style that Modiano will develop and perfect - and then for no clear reason father becomes reticent and actually tries to push son under an arriving Metro train. How could this be? What happened? Narrator is rescued, goes w/ father to police station where police pressure son to report his father, which he won't do, and then they leave. Motif of an accident and how that drives people apart, or together, and into mysterious realms, is another Modiano motif that will emerge in his later fiction.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

In search of the lost father: themes that run through Modiano's novels

Patrick Modiano's 3rd (1972) novel and the 3rd in his so-called Occupation Trilogy, Ring Roads, is another step for him away from the sensational and eccentric and toward the dark and mysterious - from the first 30 or so pp (like all of his novels that I know of, this one is short, too - about 120 pp) we see his style truly emerging: an unnamed narrator scrutinizes what appears to be an old photograph, a picture of his father seated between two guys who look like thugs or gangsters, they're in what appears to be a dark bar or saloon. It's clear he has not seen his father for some time; my thoughts at this point were that it's set in the present (i.e., 1972) and he's looking at a picture from the 1940s; then, we kind of step into the photograph and see interactions among the three men and a barmaid, and we follow them home to the fairly lavish houses they're "renting" in a Paris suburb during the Occupation. We see that they're completely unsavory types and though it's never stated it's obvious by inference that they've taken over houses and properties abandoned by French Jews forced to leave ahead of the Nazi advance. Then we move into a 3rd phase as the narrator literally enters the picture. We learn that he's a cop investigating these men - and that he has not seen his father in many years (whether it's a coincidence that he's investigating his father or whether that's the whole point of his "assignment" isn't yet clear). Improbably - but this isn't exactly a realistic novel anyway - his father doesn't recognize the narrator, his son - who tells the men he's visiting the small town on vacation, that he's a novelist (funny - the reverse is true, obviously, Modiano is a novelist posing as a cop); the men (including his father) take him into their circle, invite him to dinner, and he begins to gather information. These are the themes that will run through Modiano's fiction for the next 40+ years: pursuit of the lost father, father's gangster associations, profiteering during the war, guilt and suppressed memories about the Occupation, seedy Paris nightclubs, cars and transportation in general. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Modiano's evolving style

To summarize or try to describe Patrick Modiano's 1969 novel (his 2nd), The Night Watch (or Night Rounds) would make it sound like a thriller or spy novel or adventure story about a double (or triple) agent - the protagonist/narrator - I don't think we ever learn his name - is a young man in Paris during the occupation, has time on his hands, gets sucked into life with a gang of thugs and becomes attempt at theft and extortion, the leader of the gang forms an alliance with the Nazis, which brings the narrator great wealth as the gang gets cut in on every deal, but the narrator is assigned to infiltrate a resistance group - he gains (too) easy access to the group but instead of infiltrating he gives false reports back to his gang - until eventually they get onto him and torture him and extract info about the resistance, and he eventually flees across the border to Switzerland (or tries to). Yes, it could make a good, if fairly typical movie - but Modiano's tone throughout is comic-satiric and sometimes high camp: the characters with the odd names, the scenes that unfold in dream-like, surreal fashion, the high improbability of much of the action, the picaresque qualities of the narrator, and the general air of moral indifference. You can see how right from the outset of his career he was pushing boundaries and defying expectations, but I think it took him a while to find his real format, which was, and is, noir detective fiction in search of (or in service of) deeper literary, psychological, and historic truths. What we see emerging in this novel are: obsession with the gangs and profiteers during the Occupation, disappearing parents, shame and guilt about survival during the Occupation, willful amnesia about the war years, the need for flight and escape (to neutral territory), obsession with names of Parisian streets and neighborhoods. As he sheds some of the literary showmanship and antic narration, his style becomes sharper, more penetrating, more focused.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Modiano's comic style - and why he abandoned it

Patrick Modiano's 2nd novel, and the 2nd in the collection The Occupation Trilogy, from 1969, The Night Watch (or, more accurately in the English-ed translation, Night Rounds) is his 2nd approach to the theme of collaboration during the Occupation, and the concomitant shame, guilt, and amnesia. Though Night Watch is hardly conventional in design or tone it's much more so than his sometimes histrionic debut novel of the year before (Place de l'etoile). In this one the narrative moves more conventionally back and forth between two points of view: one involving Jew being held captive by a cadre of Occupation officers, threatening to torture him unless he reveals info about a resistance organization; the other plot strand is the Jewish collaborator's (or victim's) point of view, as he tries to protect two people whom we recognize that he will have to betray. All that said, this is by no means a straightforward political, thriller, or historical narrative. The tone throughout is oddly comic and exaggerated, so that we never feel that this is realistic, that it could have happened, at least not in this shape or form. For ex., the gang of Occupation officers consist of men, women, all with strange names, each representative of a different nationality. Similarly, the (unnamed) collaborator has in his  charge a blind giant and a small elderly woman (though sometimes she seems to be a little girl): in other words, Modiano goes out of his way to grasp onto the odd literary conventions of the 60s - Pynchonesque names, extreme comical behavior, a willful resistance to conventional narrative. Though this novel is more accessible than Place de l'etoils - and it's possible the protagonist is the same person, although there are no obvious points of linkage - Modiano is far from the cooler style he adopts later in his career, when he adopts the American-detective noir style, which is far more mysterious and powerful in conveying the events of the occupation, rather than this comic style that disorients and distances the reader.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sharma's story in current New Yorker - or is it, I hope, the start of a novel?

Not sure what to say about Akhil Sharma's story, A Life of Adventure and Delight, in current NYer except to say that I hoe it's a selection from a longer work because it ends with no resolution, with uncertainty and puzzlement, a bitter aftertaste. Sharma - who, if memory serves, debuted his fine first novel, FAmily Life,with a NYer story that captured the dramatic highlight (diving accident) of the narrative - this time sketches in the life of his central character, an NYU chem grad student from India but without a central, pivotal dramatic moment. We meet the protag as he is arrested and hauled away in a police van - of course I was thinking terrorism? narcotics? - but it turns out to be a bust of men hiring prostitutes from various websites. The protag is ashamed and embarrassed, completes his brief public service, resolves to no longer hire prostitutes - it's worth noting that he's mean and thoughtless to these women, insulting their looks to bargain down the price, sometimes calling to "order" services and then disappearing. Nice guy, huh? He determines to meet an eligible Indian woman and settles on a sweet young colleague, goes through a long courtship, things seem to be going well, although he feels awkward - being in love, becoming engaged, requires a lot of commitment and mental energy, and he seems not up to it - then when he tells his family in India of the engagement, they get really angry - it's a dowry issue, they could have negotiated a good price with the bride's parents but he's ruined everything by taking this on himself. It looks, maybe, as if we're heading toward Lahiri-land, educated Indians breaking with their relatives back home as the adjust to the American way of life and marriage - but then for some weird reason the protag hires another prostitute, and this one - unlike all of his previous encounters - he finds to be attractive and compliant. Story ends with him happily caressing her breasts as she, on his request, jumps up and down. I have no idea what to make of this man; I don't like him at all - but despite that or because of that I hope Sharma, a fine writer, there's no question about that, gives him a chance at redemption.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The originating point in Modiano's career

Patrick Modiano's 1968 debut novel Place de l'etoile is by turns fascinating disturbing repulsive and frustrating. It becomes not more clear as you proceed to the end (like most of his work to follow it's short just 116 pp) it becomes less rather than more coherent , which is by intent - it's a 1960s mash of narrative Sykes and voices sometimes in first person sometimes in 2nd sometimes seeming to take place during the occupation sometimes afterwards..  The narrator Raphael Schlimovitz (sp?) sometimes seems to be a young man sometimes not. There are few constants except that the over arching theme is the French relationship to its Jewish population in particular during the occupation and in particular to Jewish artists and intellectuals. The narrator goes through many guises but the constants seem to be that he was a collaborator during the occupation trying to gain favor w the Nazis as a cooperating Jew - and of course Modiano's references the Dreyfus case and many Jewish-French artists and intellectuals who identified as French rather than Jewish Proust and Celine in particular after the war now cognizant as to how it fared for Jewish collaborators - not well - Raphael embarks on various repulsive missions of vengeance particularly capturing young French women and selling them into slavery! Caught in that scheme he disembarks for Israel where he is sent to a sort of prison or boot camp where he and other European Jews are tortured or killed. Worse than the Nazis. What you have to ask by the end is the point of all this? Modiano has established a theme but in this novel just sensationalized it - i wished throughout that he would just tel a conventional narrative no matter how extreme but at least be consistent in time scheme and narrative voice and facts on the ground. It is better to be able to read this novel looking back over the voice that Modiano established in later years to see it as the originating point for a literary career that would become much more elegant and less sensational and willfully idiosyncratic.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Modiano's early themes - and late

Patrick Modiano's 1968 debut novel, Place d'l'etoile, is difficult on many levels immature dated extreme show-off and yet you know you're reading a work by someone who will grow into a major talent and you can definitely see all the signs : great knowledge of the French literary tradition and of world literature as a whole and, most important,ma powerful theme : the position of the Jew in post occupied France and the relation of French pluralistic culture to the Jewish population in the shadow of the nazi occupation. He will continue to examine and develop these themes w increasing sophistication over the next half-century. In this novel the narrator is a French jew named Raphael schlemivits (sp?) - a name that tells you in a way the whole story. He reflects that he was a collaborator during the occupation and now (about 1946?) he is reassertion get his Judaism but w a great deal of guilt - which he displaces by seeking revenge. He poses as a French aristocrat and is taken in by various provincials enthralled by his good looks name dropping and literary poses - but his real motive is to kidnap their daughters and sell them into sex slavery in South America! Believable? Not for a second nor is it meant to be. What we see here is the uneasy relationship between Jews and others in France post war: as a Jew he wants to assert his identity but can never again feel at home in his native culture. He hears and over hears the most vile anti Semitic comments when he is under cover. There are many rough edges to the story - it's almost impossible to reconcile various element including the narrator's age - and the biggest black hole - again, intentionally - is the occupation itself. What did the narrator do to survive? That's an irrecoverable memory - one of the many theme Modiano maintains to this day - along w the father w gangster connections the mother as an itinerant actress the child as abandoned.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Modiano's first novel - and the absence of the Occupation years

Started reading Patrick Modiano's first novel, Place d'Etoile (reference to both the Parisian intersection and the star that Jews were ordered to wear on left-side chest during WWII) - novel from 1968 set at least initially just after the war. The protagonist and narrator is a French Jew with a long, almost comical German-Jewish surname, first name: Raphael, and these are his two sides or aspects: on the one hand a Jew and on the other an artist, dilettante, assimilated arriviste. In the first section of the novel we see him as a wealth young man - inherited money from a Bolivian uncle - who fashions himself after Fitzgerald (the high life) and Proust (the literary life), with ambitions of becoming the best French-Jewish writer. He is widely read (at least drops a lot of literary names and references), but in his journeys - some accompanied by his father - he encounters some bitter anti-Semitism. Yet the entire first part of the novel is written in high-comic, almost parodic tone - fairly typical of novels from the 1960, reminds at times of say The Ginger Man or Confederacy of Dunces. This high comic tone is intentionally disturbing - the novel not as fine and dark as Modiano's later works but we see hints of his style emerging. Perhaps most striking, the years of wartime occupation are barely mentioned - the Occupation is a background that colors everything, as in later Modiano novels characters seem to have amnesia about the war experiences, about the complicity, about their guilt, and these years are like a black hole - a presence that dominates by its absence.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The end of Book 5 of My Struggle - and back to the begining

The end of Book 5 My Struggle is crisp and clear and brings us right back to the first page (like 2nd movement in Beethoven's 9th or 3rd act in La Boheme ...): That's how I left Bergen. We look back to the first page, where Karl Ove Knausgaard quite ludicrously states that he has no memory of his 14 years in Bergen. As if. What strikes me most about the last 50 pages or so, during which his (first) marriage breaks apart in part because of his infidelity - a lurid episode that he quite bravely recounts in painful, anguished detail - but also because of the way his writing draws him away from his marriage, away from all his friendships and social life - for KOK writing is all-consuming, and for anyone with him must accept the fact that he will withdraw into his writing for months, even years at a time - whether the writing is going well or poorly. He describes 3 years of so-called writer's block, during which he spends some time on an island, away from Tanje, and even when with her he is in frequent agony and despair about his inability to write; then, when it's going well, he writes hundreds of pages at a stretch. Either way, writing for him is all consuming and obliterates every aspect of life - not something Tanje (or KOK for that matter) could really have understood when their marriage began. Additionally, he still, well into his 30s, spends many nights out until dawn getting blind drunk - it's actually amazing that T. put up with that for so long, perhaps a measure of her own insecurity. Much of the last section concerns the death of KOK's father and his great sorrow, even though he loathed and feared his father. He discusses some of this with the priest who performs the funeral service, and to his surprise he finds solace and comfort - which made me think it's surprising he never sought counseling, though perhaps he feared that would douse the pain that fuels his imagination. I'm struck by how different the Book 5 account of his father's death was from the Book 1 account, at least in my memory: in Book 1 there was much anger at family members who let father and grandmother decline so precipitously, did so little to help after the death; much discussion about the difficult task of cleaning the decrepit house; much discussion about the sordid conditions, the recognition that grandmother is also an alcoholic, that father may have fallen and spent days on the floor before dying - all that passed over entirely in the Book 5 account which is almost entirely about KOK's sorrow and tears. As noted in yesterday's post, by this time we understand that his is mourning for the sadness and humiliation in his own life. We would not, could not have understood that in Book 1.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Why Karl Ove Knausgaard cries at the death of his father

Fascinating to see how the strands of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle begin to loop together toward the end - at least in the penultimate Book 5: In this volume he's describing the 5 or so years he spent in Bergen as a young man and aspiring writer - it's the most straightforward chronology of any of the books so far - we see him mature from a kid both cocky and insecure, coming to recognize that his talent is thin or at least undeveloped - and over time he builds his talent, begins to get a reputation as a smart reviewer and critic, has one breakthrough story and then, right near the end of the book, his first novel is accepted for publication. Meanwhile he builds some long-lasting friendships with other writers of his generation, and, more important, after several disastrous relationships and several typical bumbling youthful relationships he meets a lovely woman and they marry - not, as we know from early volumes, happily ever after. The twist is that right near the end of Book 5 KOK's brutal, domineering, and pathetic father dies of alcoholism - and we're put right back into Book 1 - but now we know so much more about KOK than we did at that point in the sequence. In fact, my memory failed and I had thought that KOK was an established writer, and perhaps on his 2nd marriage, at the time of his father's death, but now I'm reminded otherwise - he was just about to have his first publication and he's just a few months into his (first) marriage, which makes the death of his father more strange and poignant- he's still so young, with such a seemingly bright future ahead, and now he has to plunge into death. It's still puzzling how deeply KOK mourns his father - he's very sensitive throughout his life and prone to crying, everything from moist eyes to sobbing, but I wonder why he wouldn't just think good riddance to the son of a bitch, but it's not his father - it's, to paraphrase Hopkins, Karl Ove he mourns for.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Karl Ove Knausgaard's strange narrative decisions

It's really quite astonishing how Karl Ove Kanausgaard can go into such exquisite and sometimes excruciating detail about certain passing moments in his early life - a conversation in a bar or nightclub, a class discussion, a walk through a rain-swept town, and so forth and almost completely gloss over key events in his life (unless these come up for more detailed treatment in book 6?) such as his engagement (to Tanje), their trip together to Africa (one sentence), their wedding (a page perhaps). That's all part of the strangeness and beauty, however, of My Struggle, and his literary forebears, Proust and Joyce, were even more extreme - Proust writing essentially an entire volume about one or two salon gatherings, Joyce find all of Irish civilization (and British literary history) in one day in the life of 3 people. There does, however, as I approach the conclusion of Book 5, seem to be a bit of a headlong rush, atypical of KOK, as if he's got a lot of material before him and needs to get through it all before the book becomes unwieldy. There's a sorrow that imbues it, as well, because of his smart decision to tell his story out of chronological sequence; just as we feel he may be maturing and he may have found a soul mate who can help him build confidence and eradicate or diminish his sense of shame, we recall that his first marriage failed and we remember all of his character flaws - the drinking, the violence, and self-destructive impulses - and recognize that his life is on no easy course. He lives in the shadow of death.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Why Karl Ove Knuasgaard writes My Struggle

Karl Ove Knaiusgaard's life, and his life story, take a turn for the better toward the end of Book 5 of My Struggle, as KOK begins to date a very lovely and sensible young woman, Tanje?, who is one of the interns at the radio station where KOK is working for his year (?) of national service (interesting that national service is required of all Norwegians and, as it appears, it's fairly easy and common to do that service in a nonmilitary setting - imagine how great this would be for the US!). KOK finds himself beside himself with love for this woman, who clearly reciprocates, and they get to know each other very gradually - he's really worried about coming on to her too fast (which ruined at least one of his earlier infatuations) and about saying the wrong thing, speaking awkwardly - in other words, though he's 25, he's still somewhat insecure and immature and he acts like a 15-year-old about to go out on his first serious date. All seems good, we sense this volume, unlike the 4 preceding ones, to end on a positive note for KOK, and then a horrible thing happens: out with T. at a club, along with his brother, Yngve, KOK becomes distraught and withdrawn as Y and T speak amiably, feels excluded, this obviously brings up for him competitive issues with his older brother and recollections of the time Y snatched another girlfriend/infatuation away from him, KOK goes to the men's room and slashes his face with a shard of glass. Horrible and horrifying - and we're reminded again of how fragile he is, how self-destructive and destructive, how dangerous he can be when drunk, to others and himself, and we wonder what help he needs what help he can get - and it again becomes clear that his "struggle" is lifelong and that the act of writing this novel or series of novels is his penance and his salvation, at least for a time.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Art unfinished: a 3-part story by John L'Heureux

Short story in current New Yorker is by John L'Heureux, with the appealing title of Three Brief Moments in a Long Life. The 3 moments, even more briefly, are: first, author reflects on a time in childhood, in grade school, when he hated recess and would try to use the time to read, and there was a girl int he class who also hated recess and cried a lot; the girl left school, came back a year later, no longer crying, and unleashed a string of expletives that made all the kids, and the teacher, very uneasy; he prays that she will die and the next summer she dies of polio. Oops. Second moment: he's an older man (I'd judge about 50) with several novels to his credit, none of them widely known (much like L'H, from what I know of him - I believe he was a very respected prof at Stanford w/ a # of novels, one created some buzz in the 70s but for the most part he's not known beyond the circles of academe - like so many writers, sad to say) and he's interrupted in his writing by a man at the door seeking some work for pay; the man reminds him of Jesus. He gives him $5 - should he have done more? Third: He's now 80, taken to the hospital for emergency treatment of pneumonia, but actually dying from Parkinson's and wished that they could just let pneumonia take him. So, hm, what to make of these: in these brief and loosely connected episode L'H takes on the most profound issues of his life, any life: beliefs about god and the afterlife (if any), religious and moral obligations, the nature of fame and recognition, mortality, facing death with wit and confidence. The stories don't feel fully developed or integrated, but maybe that's fine - they feel "unfinished" like many other great works of art (some on view apparently in a cool exhibition now at the Met in NYC).

Friday, May 6, 2016

The chronology of My Struggle

Trying to recollect or reconstruct the time scheme of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, which is not by any means a straightforward chronology of his life. Here goes: Book 1 (in the British edition it was called A Death in the Family, pace James Agee. a title that KOK never used) is about his teenage years and then mumps well forward to the death of his father (and grandmother) both severe alcoholis, when KOK was an adult but, I think, not yet married w/ children; Book 2 came much closer to the present day as we see KOK as a successful Norwegian writer, living in Sweden with his 2nd wife and their two children, and in part reflects back on his first marriage and his early years as a successful writer. Book 3 goes deepest into his childhood, the earliest years, a time when his father tormented and frightened him at every moment. Book 4 is about his years just after high school (gymnas) when he was teaching in a remote northern high school - and experience somewhat like Teach for America except that it takes kids right out of high school rather than right out of college college, but in either case w/ little to no preparation. And Book 5 is about his time in the writing academy, and, later, in the university in Bergen as he commits to a life as a writer, meets other aspiring writers, and has his first literary success. Friend WS (not William Shakepeare) is right that Book 5 is the least appealing, so far (there's one more to come) in the series and certainly would not be a good starting point for a reader fresh to his work - it depends very much on our knowledge of KOK's life and character and on the lives of other characters that he knows or encounters: his parents, brother, and uncle in particular. There's perhaps a little too much name-checking and uninspired recollection of first publications, of encounters with other later-to-be-slightly-famous writers of his cohort - and I'm amazed at how little KOK examines the break-up with 4-year-girlfriend, Gunvor. That said, there is definitely a cumulative pleasure to these volumes - and the effect would be lost entirely had KOK decided on a straight-ahead chronology: rather than plodding through the events of his life in chronoligical sequence we gather the whole picture slowly, in fragments, much like the mosaic work I recently have praised in Kate Atkinson's novels (or Virginia Woolf's, for that matter). Know the horrible outcome his father endured, for example, and remembering KOK's uncontrolled weeping at the death of his hateful father, colors our understanding of all of his family relationships (and personal "struggles") that we read about in subsequent vollumes.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

He dreamed he'd seen St. Augustine?: Karl Ove Knausgaard and the confessional novel

Over the course of reading the first 5 books in Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle I've noted in several posts that his struggle amounts to living w/ his two competing, even antithetic drives: the desire to be welcomed and accepted by family and peers, to fit in and not be and oddity or oddball, and and the same time the drive to be unique and special, to be an artist, a writer. We see this struggle and this conflict, two forces that often diverge and sometimes do converge (success as a writer does bring public recognition and acceptance and even love, at times). Book 5 opens up another dimension of his struggle, at least one that hadn't been as clear to me in the first 4 books, and that's to overcome his great sense of shame - a theme somewhat less prominent in art and literature (maybe more so in Scandinavia than elsewhere, however - one of Bergman's great films is The Shame). In this volume, which covers the years of his life from roughly 19 to 23, corresponding to an American youth's college years, a time in which he truly commits to his writing, with great frustration, however, and experiences his first mature love, we see how he manages to ruin every relationship, to cause a lot of destruction and turmoil, to stupidly engage in petty theft and vandalism, to injure his brother (hurling a glass, without warning, right at his face), much or most of these episodes occurring during one of his blind, blackout drunks. It seems to me what he's trying to do is obliterate part of his life - his shame about masturbation (though as a mature writer he's extraordinary open and confessional about every aspect of his sex life), shame at cheating on his very sweet and devoted girlfriend, shame about his looming alcoholism, and maybe in some way shame about his family - which is to say about his miserable son of a bitch father. Shame and the concurrent violent actions and drunken binges seems to balance out against his writing: when he's writing well he is less driven by shame, but when his writing is going poorly, which it mostly is at this stage of his life, and he's smart enough to see that (not delusional like so many young would-be writers) he acts out, often destructively. We recognize that it took KOK some years, decades even, to discover his destiny as a writer, to be brave enough to write the kind of novel he was meant to write, that would ease his pain. As we read this novel, sharing with the author a much greater understanding than the character KOK can have in that we know what he become (a great writer), we begin to understand that the solution KOK devised was to put his shame out in the open, to write a kind of confessional novel not seen maybe since St. Augustine.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Unlike a rollling stone: Karl Ove Knausgaard's Dylan problem

I'm a generation older than Karl Ove Knausgaard but still able to identify with many of his personal experiences, thoughts, perceptions - it's an acknowledged that great literature is both unique and universal, to paraphrase one great work of literature - and with many of his cultural touchstones as well. The identifying markers in literature don't really change much over a generation, and a lot of the authors he reads in college or references in later life are the same I've read (and still read), albeit w/ far more Scandinavian authors, many probably not available in English. When it comes to music, however, we're in different worlds - a generation makes a whole lot of difference. I figure that many of the bands he mentions were local or ephemeral, but even among the much more widely known - Sonic Youth is one he discusses in Book 5, for example - to me they're generally nothing more than a name, I don't know the music, haven't lived through it and with it as he has. Music is always an emotional touchstone, a soundtrack to our lives so to speak, but the tracks that link w/ my memories and youthful feelings completely differ from KOK's. Not only that, I'm surprised at how dismissive he can be of foundational rock music and, in particular, why did he never appreciate Bob Dylan, who to me is clearly the world's greatest living artist. I would have thought that the emotional landscape Dylan explored in his early rock phase would have been a perfect match for KOK - his "struggle" and Dylan's - to fit in while also being a great artist (I try my best to be just what I am ... ) - are one and the same and I'd have thought Dylan's music (and lyrics) would resonate w/ KOK, but no. In one sequences in Book 5 he actually puts Dylan down, scornful of a guy whom he doesn't much like who listens to Dylan in his car. This may explain why I simply don't get the lyrics KOK writes for the band he's formed w/ his brother, which translates something like the Kafka Machine. To me they seem pointless and obscure - is KOK putting us on? - but his brother thinks they're great, so I have to assume KOK includes them as an example of his writing at a certain stage of life and not in self-mockery. (And yes his girlfriend is Gunvor; I'll correct yesterday's post.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Another Side - of Karl Ove Knausgaard

This far in of course we know Karl Ove Knausgaard well enough that we know what will have inhis relationship with the woman who seems to be the first real love of his life: Gunvor. She's pretty, small, sweet, seems to care for him deeply, a serious but not too serious student, compassionate, devoted to her family, just the kind of girl any 20-year-old guy would want to meet, to "win" her affections, to introduce her to his family, all of which happens, and yet we know (not only because we've read about his life in later years in previous books in My Struggle, though of course that's a factor) the problem: she's a little too good, too conventional for him. Whether she recognizes this and pulls away from KOK or falls for another guy who's much more her type - a business student or law student, say - or whether he starts to sense that they're a mismatch, or that she's "too good" for him, or, most likely, that she's pulling away from the relationship, she's not all there - and then he goes on one of his morose benders, does something really destructive, ruins it all because he can't manage a mature young-adult relationship - I'm betting on the latter. But this is all so true to life, so typical for so many of that age and stage of life, a time of missed chances, broken connections, embarrassing mis-steops and mistakes, it's a wonder we every get through all those false starts and learn to love someone and to earn and keep someone's love. KOK is not all bad, ever - and we see his sweet and positive side as well in this part of Book 5: spending part of the summer near Gunvor in yuet another remote rural part of Norway, he takes a job as an orderly or aide in a hospital for the severely disabled and the mentally disabled. His account of the hospital is quite harrowing and, like many other readers I imagine, I felt that he has taken on holy work but work I could never do, not for a day - but he, despite his inevitable self-doubts, seems to step right in and care for the patients pretty well, even the neediest and most dangerous of the patients. Perhaps he learns something from this experience (of course he does, actually), and in another way: perhaps he teaches us something as well, something about himself and his generous, humane qualities that we have rarely seen in this long, purgatorial self-examination through art.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Universal book group acclaim for A God in Ruins w/ one significant demurral

Rare universal acclaim last night from book group on Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins, all impressed with her intelligent design of the novel, her ability to tell the life story of a characters, her admirable use of research, her selection of a grand theme - the effect of WWII on one English aviator and, by extension, on the entire nation and its culture. The single point of debate, obviously, was Atkinson's strange decision to upend her entire narrative in the last chapter and author's note. As I noted in previous posts (and yes btw in re-reading those posts: WWI is a type in reference to Narrow Road to the Deep North; it's obviously WWII), Atkinson was really smart to avoid telling the story in straight narrative sequence; if she had, the highlight would have been the war years and the novel would have fallen flat in its second half. Yet: she refers many times to Teddy's being held in a German POW camp at end of war. I, like all readers, anticipated, as we got near the end and he was piloting a doomed bomber run, that he would survive the landing, be captured, and in the final pp we would see him as a POW - though it looked as if KA was running out of space to do that chapter justice. And then: she has Teddy die in the plane crash, in effect obliterating all of the subsequent elements of his life - and she needlessly preaches to us: these are just characters, a novel is the author's invention, an act of the imagination, etc. Well, as we noted last night, this kind of broke the contract readers engage in when we embark on reading a narrative: nothing up to that point suggested any postmodern narrative interventions, such as, for example, authorial asides to the reader. I  - we all - admired so much about this novel, but I had to wonder: was she just getting tired of it, did she shirk her responsibility to give us one more chapter, or was this all part of her design, and if so, why? It was so needless.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Why we shouldn't loathe Karl Ove Knausgaard

As part 2 of Book 5 in Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle opens we jump about 3 years further into his life - he's now about 23 and studying in the literature program in Bergen and appreciating some really great novels - notably Magic Mountain and other works by Mann - breaking free from the fixation on experimental fiction that dominated the Writing Academy, where he'd completed his first year of studies and that as far as I can see did him no good, more or less shattered his self-confidence and moved him deeper into drinking and other destructive behavior. Yes, the NYTBR review that came out today is probably right (I won't read it till later but did read the headline and boldface pull-quotes) that KOK is almost daring his readers to see him as an evil person. But we don't, really, though we might have had this book been a standalone, but not if we've gone w/ him this far and seen the legacy of alcoholism in his family and the terrible bullying he was subjected to by his hateful father. It strikes me that KOK's post high-school (gymnas) experiences were completely upside-down: after gumnas he went to teach for a year in a fairly remote high school, then spent a year in the Writing Academy where he was the youngest of the 8 students, then began reading literature in what seems like it must be a university. Shouldn't this have been reversed? Study literature and earn an undergrad degree, try teaching for a year, then enter the Writing Academy? He was for too immature and irresponsible to teach right out of high school, far too inexperienced to devote a year to writing. At least he seems happier and more respected in the literature program. We do then step back to where part 1 left off, with KOK sobbing in remorse before his brother whom he'd badly injured in a drunken rage - and, as that part of the story fills in, we see KOK enter into what seems like the first healthy and mature love relationship of his life thus far - so we'll see how that relationship founders, no doubt.