Tuesday, February 28, 2017
George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is going through its 4th life right now - first when it was published (1949), then during the heart of the Cold War in the 1960s when every teenager in America read it, then in 1984 when people read it again to see if Orwell's prescience was accurate (it wasn't) and now as we look at the potential rise of a totalitarian state in the U.S. Nineteen Eight-Four holds up well as a narrative - Orwell's style is smart, funny, clear, the narrative uncluttered, and most of all his vision of a dystopian future as startling and real today as when I first read the novel many decades ago (the sex scenes, so titillating to young male readers in the 1960s, seem quaint today, however). It's even more obvious reading the novel today that he was thinking about the possible expansion of a Stalinist autocracies into a a world-dominating force - his vision was a planet divided into three massive nations, always at war w/ one another. The satiric elements of the novel are powerful today if a little too crude - to world divided into party members (the narrator, Winston Smith, is a skeptical party member) and the "proles"; as in his earlier and more didactic work, Animal Farm, part of the message concerns the hypocrisy and exploitation of the party in relation to the working class - exalted in theory but oppressed and exploited in practice. Nineteen Eighty-Four is much broader in scope than AF, as if posits a complete totalitarian society in which all citizens are constantly monitored and controlled the "thought police." Fortunately, societies such as Orwell envisioned have never risen to global dominance, yet, but we have seen several Orwellian states rise and fall in the over the past half-century: China under Mao, Cambodia, North Korea, Uganda, and in some ways - though more militant and less intellectual - ISIS, to name some examples, each at least so far evolved or isolate. But that brings us to the more interesting aspect: the totalitarian democracy. How can we not feel a chill and a shudder of recognition when we read about "newspeak," in which lies are truth, in which everything can mean its opposite, in which an entire organ of government, the Ministry of Truth, is engaged in revising all past records and documents, pushing the truth down to oblivion through "memory holes." Not only do we see the dawn of the kind of totalitarian, autocratic behavior in the early days of the Trump administration - it's also far more possible to pervert the truth and to spy on the citizenry today that Orwell could possibly have envisioned. "Freedom is slavery" is one of Big Brother's slogans; words like that could be on the banners flying from RNC HQ, someday soon.
Monday, February 27, 2017
Book group last night weighed in on Jane Austen's Persuasion, with general feeling that it's a "classic" example of romantic comedy or, I would say, comedy of manners. We were struck by the narrow scope of this novel, and of all of Austen's novels for that matter, a small piece of England, a small segment of society, no outsiders, no dissenters, and almost no reference to events in the world at large: we debated a bit what it means that she has all these naval officers in the novel, which is a nod to the just complete Napoleonic wars (or War of 1812 as we call it) - a war that merits no mention whatsoever in her earlier novels written in time of war. We remarked that it seems that the whole purpose of the war in her novel was not provide a sudden influx of eligible bachelors. (Similarly, as I noted, P&P suggests that the function of the English army is to provide dance escorts.) All that said, I remarked on the darkness of Persuasion, with the war as one of the dark elements - people died in the war, and there are so many of the dead and dispossessed across Persuasion. I also noted the unpleasant nature of all of the main characters except for the two "leads" - different from other Austen novels in which the siblings & friends of the heroine are supports or comic foils, but not malevolent. RiRi noted that the conclusion of Persuasion seemed curt, and I agree - I think she rushed it because she knew she was near death. Clearly, she wrapped things up too quickly: She certainly should have had a scene in which Lady Russell apologizes to Anne Elliot. And what about Captain Wentworth? Satisfying as it is to see the 2 of them finally get together - he's really just a drink of water. His dialogue is so wooden and stilted, and you just want to reach into the novel and shake him (and her for that matter) and say: Why don't you just talk to each other like normal human beings? All told, we recognized that Austen was probably not writing in order to produce "great literature" but in order to write books that would sell & earn her a little money and some acclaim (even if she had to use a pseudonym) - but she was so smart, observant, and witty that she far surpassed the standards of the genre, opening the door for many novelists, female novelists especially, to follow.
Sunday, February 26, 2017
In the end, Magda Szabo's novel "Iza's Ballad" is a smart and subtle depiction of a strained and strange mother-daughter relationship. I won't go through the sometimes surprising plot details that complete this novel, but will note that as the novel progresses we become increasingly aware of the narcissism and the struggles for Iza, as played out in her relationship with her mother, Ettie (?) Szocs. Only at the end do we truly see how monstrous Iza can be - primarily in re her mother, but also in her relationships w/ men (except for her beloved father). This is a great novel for analysts to read and to try to make sense of: Iza seems to others, and of course to herself, to be a devoted and self-sacrificing daughter, lavishing her mother w/ comforts and with money, bringing her mother to live in her Budapest apartment shortly after she is widowed. But only gradually do we understand how cold-hearted Iza can be, how taking her of her mother serves her own, not her mother's, needs. There are also subtle indications throughout the novel of Iza's involvement in wartime resistance - presumably in resistance to the Nazi occupation of Hungary. Szabo gives few details - just a hint or mention now and again of Iza surreptitiously distributing leaflets or carrying grenades in a suitcase: her icy-cold veneer serves her well in such escapades, but serves her poorly in life, as she manages to alienate all those closest to her. This novel will never be a best-seller - after all, it's 1963 novel from Hungary, only recently translated and published by the NYRP press - famed for preserving literary obscurities; but Szabo deserves this posthumous recognition (her novel The Door was well-reviewed in 2015).
Saturday, February 25, 2017
In the third section of Magda Szabo's 1963 novel, Iza's Ballad, Iza's mother returns to her village to lay a headstone on her husband's cemetery plot on All Soul's Day. She anticipates the visit w/ great longing - she misses the people and the places of her small town, and she yearns for a re-connection w/ her late husband, for a final healing tribute to his memory - but, as you might suspect, things don't go as planned or hoped for: she's disturbed by the changes in the town over the course of the months she's spent in Budapest - new buildings, and most notably a complete renovation of her house, which she'd sold to her ex-son-in-law, Antal. She is mortified to see the headstone she'd paid for - a very expensive piece of black marble that she now realizes will be ostentatious and far out of scale with everything else in the cemetery, precisely what Vince would not have liked. She's planned to stay w/ a former neighbor, a dressmaker of sorts, but finds herself completely uncomfortable in these Spartan surroundings - no hot water, for example - and is soon "rescued" by Antal, who brings her to his (formerly her) house and provides her with food and linen. It's kind of amazing in this novel how assiduously the younger generation looks out for and takes care of their elders - very sweet, and perhaps a cultural phenomenon in Hungary (seems like something we'd read of in an Asian novel from the 20th or even 19th century). In any event, the mystery behind this novel is why Iza's mother detests the nurse, Lidia, who cared for Vince in his final days and who is now - though she does not yet know this - engaged to Antal; Antal goes off to meet w/ Lidia, leaving Iza's mother - Etta? - alone in the house, and we know only bad things can come of that decision.
Friday, February 24, 2017
Magda Szabo's 1963 novel, Iza's Ballad, is a sorrowful narrative told with great beauty and clarity - the story of a strained, difficult mother-daughter relationship, not one of abuse or mistreatment or neglect - rather, a narrative about a daughter who is trying to be grateful, helping, and loving to her recently widowed mother but who, as it turns out, is overbearingly solicitous - she uproots her mother from the village home that had been her whole life, resettles her in a spare room in her Budapest apartment, and the mother feels increasingly useless and depressed, even alienated from her daughter. By the end of the 2nd section, we see that the mother's entire life consists of riding the tram to the end of the line and back. After this section we move back to the village, and house, the mother had left behind - oddly she and daughter, Iza, sold the house to Iza's ex, a prominent doctor in the town. He remodels and house, which he'd always yearned to own - we learn in an extensive back-story section about his difficult childhood or mistreatment and abandonment - and we see that he is engaged to Lidia, the nurse who had cared for Vince (Iza's father) in his last days. There's a plot thread here that will need some untangling: Iza's mother (Etta?, I think they use her name only once) was extremely jealous of Lidia and puzzled as to why Vince had bequeathed to her a photograph or drawing of his native village - why he did so, why Etta cares so much about that, and what her relationship to the family might be, we really don't know yet. This novel has only a few characters, but has a lot of back story and complex inter-relations among the characters; in less skillful hands the narrative could become tiresome or obscure or self-consciously post-modern - but not here: Szabo's style is so clear (props to the translator may be in order - will look up his name) and her control so complete (she seems to have a complete understanding of her narrative from the outset, not figuring it out and embellishing as she goes) that the novel flows smoothly along its sinuous course.
Thursday, February 23, 2017
The second section of Magda Szabo's Iza's Ballad shifts to the capital of Budapest (set in 1960, the novel was publishedi n 1963; English translation is relatively recent) as the recently widowed Etta (?) Szocs moves in with her daughter, Iza, a successful physician. Here we begin to see the cultural clash hinted at in the first section: Iza, a completely take-charge woman who thinks she's acting as a loving daughter, tells her mother she'll take care of everything and, in the space of a week or so (not really believable) she sells the mother's house and most of her belongings, packs for her mother, and sets up a room for her in her Budapest apartment. She seems to think she's doing something benevolent, but we immediately see that her mother will have no place in this world. As one telling incident: her mother literally gathered and packed a bundle of sticks w/ which to light the cooking fire in the heart of her home-to-be; of course she's shocked and dismayed at all of the modern conveniences, at the fact that a woman comes in to cook and clean, and especially that her daughter has presumptuously replaced all her clothes, blankets, linens, even furniture with new items. The last straw - leaving the family dog, Captain, back in the village (under the care of her ex). Se we watch the mother slowly acclimatize to her new life, in which she feels alien and displaced and without a purpose. There is comic potential here, but Szabo is treating the material seriously and without sentiment - slowly, we see that Iza is, intentionally or not, almost monstrous and we feel sorrow for Etta. In some way this story is analogous to the changes that affected millions of lives in postwar Eastern Europe, though the politics are kept largely to the side (except for references to the late father's "rehabilitation" - how the state can control the lives of citizens who speak our or make a mis-step).
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Promising start to Iza's Ballad (1963), by the 20th-century Hungarian writer Magda Szabo. The central character in the novel is Ettie (?) Szocs, and the novel opens with the death of her husband, Vince, of many years (they're in their 60s) and her reflections on the the course of his life and their life together; over the next few chapters we learn fragments of his life story - born and raised in rural Hungary, his parents killed in a flood that nearly destroyed their village, he was raised after that by a thoughtful and helpful schoolteacher. He apparently rose from a menial occupation - dike-keeper - to become a local judge or magistrate, but when he issued a decision of acquitting 4 peasants (we don't yet know any details about the crime or the charge) he was stripped of his power by the Hungarian government. Following that, the family - Vince, Ettie, and daughter Iza, lived in poverty - but shortly before his death the government reversed its decision and restored him to favor. On his deathbed, Vince bequeaths to his nurse, Lidia, a picture of his native village. This action deeply troubles Ettie - she doesn't like Lidia for some reason - and she needs to find out why he gave his nurse (it was not a long-term illness or hospitalization) this picture. She goes through his belongings to try to find a clue. Meanwhile, daughter Iza, a very successful physician and always a precocious child, comes back to the family home and takes complete control - says they will sell the house and all belongings (her ex-husband, Anton, is a likely buyer) and will take her mother to live w/ her in Budapest. In fact, she takes over the entire process of selling everything and bringing her mother to the city - sending her mother off to a health spa to relax after the funeral. In one way, her forthright decisions and actions are commendable and appreciated - she is a devoted daughter after all - but in another way her control is creepy and importunate. Is Iza trying to hide something, or trying to protect her mother from something? Her mother seems to appreciate the help, but this good will cannot last - there's something driving Iza that's not quite normal.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Persuasion isn't Jane Austen's best novel, but it's her strangest (& last), she herself seems impatient with the story and eager to wrap it up. The last chapter, typical of a romantic comedy, is pretty much a fact-check, bringing us up to date on the fates of all the major characters: Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot marry of course, and he expresses regret about his failure to connect w/ her 6 (?) years sooner when he'd come back to England after his service in the Navy - he is by far the most shy and reserved of all Austen heroes, almost comically so. Why has Persuasion, to my knowledge, never been adapted for film (unlike Austen's other major works)? - because male lead stuck with Wentworth's lines would be laughed at, he's so wooden, serious, upright, even pompous. A female fantasy of the powerful but pliant male? Maybe (though the contemporary analog that comes to mind is the narcissitic male lead in Bridges of Madison County). Most of Austen's works are classified as comedies of manners, which is accurate as much of their action and development is about social graces and how characters interact with one another in social settings. Persuasion is truly more of a romantic comedy, as the characters don't really interact very much: the two lead characters remain unaware that they each still love each other until at last they break the ice and re-commit their love. They are surrounded by characters who had been and could be obstacles to their marriage, most notably Anne's snobbish and narcissist family members, father in particular, and her "friend" Lady Russell, who had talked Anne out of the marriage some 9 (?) years back. She could have been a real obstacle this time, but Austen seems to give up the fight: in the final chapter she limply states that Lady Russell gave up her objections (of course, Capt Wentworth had earned a lot of money and proved his "worth") and Wentworth forgives her for her past opposition. To the said, there was a subplot involving a cousin, Mr. Elliot, plotting to marry Anne to gain the family title, aided by a Mrs. Clay - and I'm not really sure what her game was - but in any event they both retreat from the plot as well. So Anne and Capt W. are to be married, but what a world they will live in - a dark and selfish world. This would be a better novel had they turned their backs on this society - had they triumphed over prejudice and adversity. (For example, what if Wentworth were not well to do and successful, but Anne married him anyway?)
Monday, February 20, 2017
Nearing the conclusion of Persuasion, and, at last, Captain Wentworth declares his love for Anne Elliot - and he does so - by penning her a letter! Strangely enough, they're in the same drawing room as he writes the letter, and she's engaged in a serious discussion about whether men or women are more steadfast and faithful in regard to love. She's discussing all this while Wentworth picks up a pen and writes; then, awkward as a schoolboy with a crush, he leaves the room and then in a bumbling manner returns and hands her the folded letter. He leaves again, she steps aside to read it, and for the first time recognizes that he truly loves her and has been faithful to her ever since they were forced by importunate relatives to cancel their engagement and during his 8+ years at sea. Then through an awkward arrangement Wentworth gets to walk Anne home. Crescendo! It's all both sweet and funny, as we try to picture this tough, bold Navy officer acting like a teenager in love. The greatest interest in this (penultimate) chapter in Persuasion, however, probably centers on the remarks from Anne E about women novelists - one of the few points in her fiction that Austen shares her thoughts about literature and in particular about literature by women. I'm sure these lines have been parsed by scholars and Jane-ites; I don't have them in front of me, but as I recall captain harville notes that literature is full of examples of women pining away and remaining ever faithful to their beloved, and Anne points out that the many examples he is thinking of are from novels and poems by men. (Note: I had to look back to check some points in this dialogue). We get the wit and tension here: We're reading a novel by a woman about a woman who remains faithful though most of the other characters in this novel are shallow or insidious. Clearly, fidelity is an ideal in this novel; Persuasion differs from other Austen novels in that the obstacle to the romance isn't internal - poor initial character judgements based on misinformation or partial information - but external: Anne E and Wentworth are kept apart initially by the prejudice of others and later by world events, the war that is just over the horizon, sickness and poverty and death that permeate the atmosphere - it's fitting and unsurprising that the novel finds its way to Bath, a setting both of stagnant English country society and strange healing waters for the invalid.
Sunday, February 19, 2017
At last Anne Elliot, in Austen's Persuasion, realizes or at least begins to realize what we have known all along, that Captain Wentworth maybe, just maybe, is still in love w/ her. They're at a musical soiree in one of the fashionable homes in Bath and he purposefully engages her in conversation about the pieces to be performed. Honestly, a more stilted or wooden dialogue between two would-be lovers has never been composed - not a touch of charm or wit - but by his point in the novel we have become accustomed to the overall dark tone: These are not two kids but two worldly adults, who were pushed apart 7 years back when Anne's family thought Wentworth to be unworthy of her, and who have been separated since by Wentworth's service in the war (of 1812, about which we hear and learn nothing in this novel). But the course of true love never doth run smooth, etc., and suddenly Mr. Elliot, Anne's cousin and the potential heir to the family baronetcy, starts flirting with her and acting interested, pushing Wentworth, the ever-retiring, to the side. We know Mr. Elliot is an opportunist - we just don't know (yet) exactly what his game may be. That will come in the next chapter, when Anne pays a visit to her now impoverished and invalid school friend, who asks Anne to approach Mr. Elliot about a favor, learns that Anne has no interest in Mr. Elliot (to her surprise), and then unloads in an extremely long account of her Mr. Elliot had ruined her and her late husband. This telling goes along with the overall darkness of Persuasion but, sorry Janeites, it's also just plain bad storytelling: Show don't tell. But, yes, Persuasion remains the darkest of Austen's novels, perhaps colored by the shade of her own imminent death?, as the heroine doesn't misread the love interest in a casual and near-comical manner, soon to be resolved to the happiness of all (thinking here of Emma and Eliz. Bennett as examples) but she endangers her own fate in what feels in all likelihood to be her last chance at a loving marriage; her friends betray her again and again; and her family rather than serving as comic foils are truly crude, ill-mannered snobs who pollute the atmosphere around them.
Saturday, February 18, 2017
I continue to be struck by the darkness of Austen's last novel, Persuasion, especially in the scenes that take place in Bath. Not only the pervasive snobbery that surrounds, smothers, and almost ruins the life of the herione, Anne Elliot - Her father and her so-called friend always making judgements about people based on their social status, their looks (Anne's father is bizarrely obsessed with how handsome or good-looking people are, not only women but men also, including most of all himself) but also the ever-present awareness of illness, death, and poverty. Anne spends some time visiting with a friend from school days, a woman just a few years older than she (i.e., about 30) who seems like an old woman: She'd married a man who died young, hard run through all their money, and now she's living in a crappy little room in abject poverty, suffering from various ailments that she hopes the waters of Bath can treat. And the Elliot family can't understand why Anne would spend any time visiting with such nobody. We know of course that this novel is heading for a comic-romantic conclusion, that Anne will marry Captain Wentworth, whom she should have married 7 years back if her family hadn't dissuaded her because he didn't seem to be of suitable rank. But there's so much sorrow and betrayal on the way to this conclusion - nothing like the bright confidence of her other social romances, where, yes, poverty was always a threat, especially to women without property (see Sense and Sensibility), but where there was also a brightness, where they characters who oppose or set off the heroine are generally light and comic (Kitty and Lydia, in P&P for ex.) rather than truly conniving and socially obnoxious. The eccentricity of, say, Emma's father, with his hypochondria, is quaint and comic and easily dealt with or dismissed - whereas Anne Elliot's father, with his obsession with beauty and social class, is narrow-minded, bigoted, and malicious. He has practically ruined his Anne's life; will he get his comeuppance? Will he grow in scope and stature? Or will Anne just move beyond him narrow world view and begin her own life?
Friday, February 17, 2017
Persuasion has the Austen ingredients but so far, about half-way through, as the various families shift from the Somerset region and resettle, at least for "the season," in Bath, the novel just doesn't have the lift and inspiration of her earlier works. I know Persuasion has its advocates, and I think what many readers find appealing about it are first, the unabashed romanticism - the couple that's meant to be, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, come together after years of separation, she's still as beautiful to him as she was before they were forced apart not by their own trepidation but by the snobbish, ill-considered opinions of others, particularly Anne's family and friends who thought he wasn't good (i.e., wealthy, titled) for her, and, second, but this being the only Austen novel in which the heroine a mature woman - she's 27 think; though Emma and Eliz Bennet and others are wise for their years, they're still quite young, teenagers for the most part, and likely to make bad decisions. In Persuasion those decisions are in the past and we're looking at romance not in its blossoming but in its autumnal stages. In 1816, 27 was pretty old - and Austen emphasizes that fact by imbuing this last of her novels with the presence of death. Captain Benwick's fiancee died young, while he was at sea; we have of course the inevitable Austen malady - in this case a fall while leaping from the top of a boulder - that leads to a character's being invalid (for at time) and center of attention and solicitation - practices that seem quaint today but were obviously part of daily life in the 19th century. another peculiarity of Persuasion is that it's the only Austen novel, I think, with any reference to world events - in this case the was (which to Americans is the War of 1812) - but there's not discussion of politics, no sense of fear as to what might be the results of the war - the war plays a role in this novel only insofar as it affects matrimony: the end of the war means an influx of naval officers who are eager to marry, a baby-boom phenomenon - because of the war their marital timeclock is out of synch w/ the rest of their cohort - all of which gives a sense of urgency and darkness to the Wentworth-Elliot courtship: time is running out, this may be their last chance. All these are important and sometimes unique aspects of the novel (at least among Austen's works), but I still think the plot tension is too slack as it's obvious to any reader where this story is headed, even though Anne herself can't see it (supposedly).
Thursday, February 16, 2017
Preparing for next meeting of Book Group have been re-reading Jane Austen's Persuasion (1816), her last completed novel, one I haven't read in at least 20 years. In a way all of Austen's novels are of a piece, ensemble social romances that play out within a limited setting and that always concern uniting partners and families of the English landed class (sometimes wealthy, sometimes with minor titles, but always by most standards "comfortable" - they employ servants rather than serve others) with few if any professional obligations. Is it fair to say that Persuasion is more difficult to follow than other Austen novels; have others had the same experience? Austen, as is typical, goes through the litany of characters in the family at the center of this novel, the Elliots (funny for me to type that), and identify each with his or her personality trait or quirk. As is also typical, the father is deeply flawed - in this case an incredible social snob and narcissist. It takes a while before we settle on Anne as the heroine, and in the first few chapters many characters with a complex web of relationships - in-laws, cousins, nieces and nephews, et al. - appear - it's sometimes hard to remember which character is which. But as to the central characters, once it's under way, there's no doubt - Anne and Captain Wentworth, a naval officer just home from the war - are destined for each other. Anne typifies other Austen heroines in that she is extremely wise and perceptive about everyone else's loves relationships and manners but not about her own; Emma was the prototype here, and the great movie adaptation had it exactly right in the title: Clueless. So it gets a little tiresome as we're so award that Wentworth still carries a torch for Anne (they had been engaged 7 years back but broke it off because Mr. Elliot thought Wentworth wasn't worthy of his daughter); everything he says - such as, I hardly would have recognized her after all these years - she completely misinterprets, and as for Wentworth, he is dumbstruck or maybe just dumb and can't quite come out and say anything positive or direct to Anne. Well, if the guy could speak his mind, we wouldn't have this novel (or maybe any social-romance novel).
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Villa Trieste (1975) is either the most or the least autobiographical of Patrick Modiano's novels. On the one hand it's hard to believe that he could have led this strange double life as an 18-year-old: selling enough forged books to finance himself for a whole summer posing as a Russian count at a French casino-resort town near the Swiss border. The whole story of his summer romance w an aspiring movie star - who like him is of humble and perhaps shady origin but is posing as a socialite - feels like a plot, and a good one, not like one of modiano's tortured memoir-like novels tha dwell on the themes of wartime occupation, collaboration, and abandonment. One the other hand - there is something about this more conventional story that is more deeply felt and possibly "true" than any of his other works - his longing for the lost love, his childish plan to escape w her to America, which he hardly understands (dreaming of the "green grass of Wyoming"!) that makes me think this is a version of his own - and a universal - experience of youth. Note how the theme of escape across borders permeates modiano's fiction - but in this novel it's not about escape from political oppression and nazi occupation but about running away w the young beloved to start a new life - but he's too burdened (lugging and enormous amount of luggage including all the phone book she he carries - essential for what will become his literary career but also a metaphor for the dead weight of the past) while she is more "light" - uncommitted and ready to just disappear w another (older) man. Her complete disappearance from his life would have been quite possible at the time of this story (early 60s) - today our world is so much more connected that it's almost impossible to disappear.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Though Villa Triste (1975) is probably the most conventional of Patrick Modiano's novels, in the mode of a middle-aged man looking back at a summer romance during his coming of age, it's still recognizably a Modiano work: the focus on forgotten and forlorn locales, the interest in night clubs and soirees (but as seen from an outsider's viewpoint), the hint of the underworld. In essence, it's a novel about two fakes who fall for each other - the narrator, using the name Victor Chmora and pretending to be a Russian Count, and his girlfriend, Yvonne Jacquet, an aspiring actress. As for Yvonne, though she lives the life of a budding starlet, we learn that she's living off payment for the one (sketchy) movie she's appeared in and for which she was paid in cash; she seems to be of the society set, but in a long chapter near the end of the novel she takes Victor to have dinner w/ her uncle, an auto mechanic, and Victor learns she grew up in this remote summer resort town near in working-class poverty. The uncle warns Victor about Yvonne, telling him she's lazy and that she's much like her father - about who we know little except that he got into serious legal trouble and has disappeared of died (a trope in many other Modiano novels but usually the father of the narrator or the male protagonist). Meanwhile, Victor continues to pass himself off as a count; we learn little about his background, though there art hints that he's made enough money to support himself, at least for the summer, through some kind of forgery of rare books. His father, too, has vanished in some way - but the whole idea of his being a Count and of Russian descent is a shame. He's really a working-class Paris guy, not all that different from Yvonne (her uncle speaks with a strong Parisian accent, Victor notes - these two really are mirror images, and they each have struggled to efface their past lives). The frame of the novel is in the present (1973), so Victor is looking back at an earlier time of his life (ca 1960), but in the "present" the small resort town is decrepit and out of fashion, a way station for soldiers on leave who drink and carouse at the train station. Victor watches (or imagines?) on friend from his summer with Yvonne, a homosexual dandy named Meinthe, who hangs around the train station, possibly looking for a hookup or for some kind of trouble - his role, even near the end of the novel, is uncertain.
Monday, February 13, 2017
As readers of this blog may have noted, I have read most of Patrick Modiano’s novels and continue reading as new (or old, actually) ones find their way into English translation and library shelves. Started reading his 1975 novel, Villa Triste, which in some ways is unique in his oevre. For one thing, he sets the novel in the Haute-Savoie province, on the shore of Lake Lemans (?), which is part of the French-Swiss border; his other novels may include some excursions but they are generally set in Paris or in the Paris suburbs (though the Swiss border is always an alluring prospect, especially in Missing Person, as the characters look to Switzerland as a possible refuge during the Nazi Occupation). Second, it’s not set during the Occuation at all, and barely even references that era; rather it’s set in the near present (the early 1970s), with the narrator visiting this once-famous, now decrepit resort on the lake and recollecting his time spent there as an 18-year-old, in 1960. Yes, as in many other Modiano novels the narrator wanted to be near the Swiss border to escape a war, but in this instance it’s the Algerian wars (I assume there must have been a draft or call-up that he was hoping to avoid). In no other Modiano novel I’ve read so far is the narrator as cool and suave as figure as in this one; somehow, he’s able to support himself and live alone in this resort town – we have no idea (halfway through) – about his source of income, about his family (he notes that his father vanished, at least from his life, during his early childhood – this is one of the few echoes of other Modiano novels, w/ the father seemingly and mysteriously engaged in underworld activities), or about his schooling (he’s 18 and not in school and not even thinking about an education). The narrator falls in with a beautiful young woman, Yvette, about his age but much more sophisticated, and her friend, at 27-year-old homosexual and roue. They are apparently involved in a movie, soon to go through final editing and distribution, and so the introduce the narrator to a much more sophisticated life of Gatsby-like parties, elaborate hotel suites, etc. As the novel begins w/ us looking back from a 15-year vantage, we know that this phase of his life, like the faded casino and resort, came to nothing but ruin – we don’t yet know why or how. As in all of his other works, Modiano, like the great German writer, Sebald, establishes a mood of darkness, obliteration, and the sense of lost time.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
Good to see the New Yorker getting behind Curtis Sittenfeld, a writer who has proved herself as a popular novelist and with what appears to be her new collection of short stories is showing that she's a to-reckon-with literary writer as well. Current NYer story, The Prairie Wife, is about a 30-something mom in Minneapolis in a mindless high-tech job that she dislikes and in a fairly cerebral marriage arranged around tight schedules of work and child care; she spends way too much time on social media and is particularly fixated on the eponymous Prairie Wife, who is a best-selling cookbook and "lifestyle" author-celebrity - and about whom the protagonist knows a secret from her past. I won't give anything away except to say that this story has a major twist or pivot, which most won't see coming. Overall, it's a fine, smart reflection of celebrity, the pervasiveness of marketing and social media. on adolescent sexuality, and on the modern family - a lot of material, which Sittenfeld presents in a smart and engaging manner with the same easy, confidential, colloquial style that has made her novels popular and admired.
Saturday, February 11, 2017
I like a lot of aspects of Juan Gabriel Vasquez's novel Reputations - the clarity of the writing, the efficiency of the storytelling, the commitment to serious issues in particular the responsibilities of journalists - and I wish I liked the novel as a whole more but I think JGV let some of his best opportunities get away, especially in the last of the three sections. At the conclusion of the novel, the woman who was, apparently, sexually abused (by a Bogota politician) while she was a child visiting the house of political cartoonist Mallarino, returns to the scene of the crime to learn more about what actually happened to her. Mallarino has little direct knowledge of this abuse and, in fact, shares some of the responsibility because of his complete lack of supervision of 2 7-year-old children in his house during a party (a responsibility that JGV never significantly considers), but he agrees to the woman's request to track down the widow of the politician who molested her. He feels wracked w/ guilty himself, in that the day after the abuse he drew a cartoon implying that the pol was a pedophile, and a day later the pol killed himself. It's kind of amazing that he hasn't pursued this issue in the past 2 decades, but maybe it did take this visit from the victim to stir him up. Spoiler here: The 2 of them spend most of a day trying to locate the abuser's widow, and at the end they are about to confront her in her office (a travel agency, for what that's worth) and the novel ends. At the conclusion, Mallarino reflects on this life's work and wonders what had changed as a result of cartoons and he believes nothing has changed - this seems extremely doubtful, as his work is widely recognized, praised, and feared throughout Colombia, so what really causes him to doubt everything? - and he goes home, writes a resignation later to his editor, and dumps and destroys his drawings and his drawing materials. That's a huge and strange thing for him to do, and I think JGV owes us more in explaining what would lead to such a drastic outcome: proof somehow that the accused was innocent, perhaps? Regret about ever drawing that cartoon and rushing it into print (at least in the U.S., no newspaper would run such a cartoon)? JGV raises many intriguing and important issues over the course of this short novel, but in the end he seems to just shrug his shoulders and abandon the project. Too bad - it's a good novel that had potential to be much better.
Friday, February 10, 2017
Juan Gabriel Vasquez is holding my interest and attention throughout his 2013 novel, Reputations, about a political cartoonist for a Bogota liberal newspaper who is honored late in his career and, at the same time, forced to look back on a troubling incident. As we learn in section 2 (of 3), years back when he was just separated from his wife and was caring for his 7-year-old daughter (Beatriz) on the weekend, he held a house-warming party at which his daughter and her friend, who'd been left in his care for the day for a "play date" made a game of finishing off the near-empty glasses of liquor and both got drunk and passed out; to make things more weird and complicated, a right-wing politician, who'd showed up at the party uninvited to cravenly ask the cartoonist (Mallarino) to stop running unflattering caricatures of him, gets caught in the act of molesting the daughter's friend. This leads Mallarino to run a horrendously degrading cartoon the next day, outing the politician as a pedophile. Most will not be surprised (spoiler, maybe) that the pol kills himself in shame. OK, I'm gripped by this story, and by JGV's smart and thoughtful narrative style, but there are some real oddities, and I can't tell whether these may be cultural differences between the U.S. and Colombia, or horrible gaffes in the behavior of this character, or flaws in JGV's own thinking about the propriety of both journalism, parental responsibility, and criminal malfeasance. First, is it even conceivable that a mom would put her young child in the custody of a single guy who's about to hold a huge party w/ lots of free-flowing booze? Second, if this did happen, would the dad really make no attempt to supervise two 7-year-old children? Third, if the kids did indulge in extensive drinking (a little odd for kids that young but possible) and passed out, would the dad really just call a dr. for advice (the doc tells him to give them sugar water every 20 minutes - wouldn't he recommend an immediate visit to the ER?). Fourth, would the family of the girl really not make much of a fuss, just basically transfer her to another school? Fifth, based on supposition that the politician molested the girl, wouldn't the likely reaction be notification of police or social services? Sixth, can you imagine (not in the U.S. anyway) a cartoon outing the politician as a child molester absent any kind of charges or even investigations? My answer to all of the above would be, "no," but again maybe we're looking at a socio-political difference. Would be interested in the reaction to this novel in Colombia; all that said, JGV is holding my interest and I will read the novel through to the finish - got to know what happens to these people!
Thursday, February 9, 2017
Juan Gabriel Vasquez is part of the new wave of Latin American novelists; from Colombia (or at least living there), he obviously lives w/in the shadow or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but he's found his own voice and pathway. He's not a magic realist - although his previous novel, The Sound of Things Falling (sp?), had a nod toward the supernatural, if my memory serves. Mostly, he's interested in the convoluted politics of LA countries and the difficulty of maintaining artistic and journalistic freedoms in a country a war w/ itself. His "new" (2013 original pub date in Spanish) novel, Reputations, obviously precedes the recent peace accord with the Colombian rebels, but does never the less feel contemporary, and it could probably take place in many other countries w/ emerging economies. As Vasquez establishes in the first section of this relatively short novel, the story concerns a 60-something political cartoonist, Mallarino, in Bogota who is widely known and recognized across the country (like no current American cartoonist, but maybe Herblock in his day, as one example); he's in late-career, obviously, the the story opens w/ his arrival at a state-sponsored celebration of his career, which of course makes him uneasy (as it would, or should, for any journalist). Not a lot happens in the first section other than establishing his character and a bit about his life, about how he began his career as a cartoonist (he'd wished to become a great artist, a painter). The most intriguing part concerned a threatening letter he received early in his career - we know where you live, we know where your daughter goes to school, etc. - though JGV doesn't build upon this, except to have one of the characters remark that you're not a real journalist in Colombia until you've received a threat. At the end of the section, a young e-journalist (i.e., a blogger) visits Mallarino in his somewhat remote home in the hills - and at the end of her interview reveals she's not a journalist, it was a scheme to get into his house. We don't (yet) no why. Took JGV a while to get there, but it's a great start to a story.
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
For a # of reasons I've stopped reading Hanya Yanagihara's novel A Little Life, at about 125 pp., which was enough to let me be certain I did not want to slog through about 525 or so more. Noting her complete reticence about disclosing anything in the author's note other than that she lives in NYC, I looked her up via Wikipedia, which let me to read Daniel Mendelsohn's long, critical review of ALL in the NYTBR; I can't speak w/ the same confidence as Mendelsohn on this, as I obviously did not finish reading ALL, but he raises two key points w/ which I completely agree and that I touched on in yesterday's post (meaning = these flaws become obvious at the start of the novel). We expect two things (at least) in a contemporary, naturalist novel: first, verisimilitude, which we don't get here at all. I think she has very little sense about how 4 guys, college roommates and friends who continue to have a close relationship as a foursome through grad school and beyond, actually speak with or behave w/ one another. A key example, the one who emerges as the central character in the novel, Jude, never ever in the least tells any of this best friends about the trauma that determined the course of his life - including, apparently, leading to a crippling injury that leaves him walking with the aid of braces and in constant pain. I get it that she's trying to show that guys don't talk about their "feelings," or at least not readily, but seriously the only reason he would keep his past a secret to his closest friends would be to build narrative tension. There are other examples as well (e.g., Jude's incredible and ridiculous list of accomplishments). Second, we expect some kind of narrative or dramatic arc, and this novel is entirely told in back story, and feels like a string of incidents connected only by the fact that they involve one or more of the 4 main characters. So what's the tension in the novel, what's the crisis, what problem needs to be resolved, how are the characters growing and changing? We see and feel none of this. Not that every novel needs to follow the same pathway, but more typically we would follow the characters over the course of their lives, starting with their meeting in college; or, we would begin at a crisis point, say with Jude in medical crisis and forced for the first time to discuss his childhood trauma. Or something. I can't comment on this not having finished reading the novel but Mendelsohn writes convincingly about HY's overwhelming her readers w/ incident upon incident of abuse - much, much more than she needs to make her point and in fact at the danger of seeming sensational and unrealistic. Was there no one who could help Jude, even in the slightest? He also raises a point w/ which I have to disagree, complaining about the clumsiness of HY's prose. Of course in 700pp there will be some passages that fall flat (here's where an editor could have helped), but there are also some quite beautiful passages and observations about the street life, the sounds, the aromas, the apartments, the work spaces in contemporary NYC. In other words, she's potentially a good writer but this novel needed significant editing and re-thinking, tho who am I to say?
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Started reading Hanya Yanagihara's much-acclaimed novel A Little Life - yet another novel about young, ambitious people in New York, college friends now trying to make it in the business or arts world, etc. How many times can this tale be told? There is no doubt a certain narcissism or hall-of-mirrors effect going on here - writers lives in NY because other writers and agents and editors and publishers live in NY and so novels get written about NY and novels about NY get published (in NY) because who doesn't enjoy reading about themselves? Ok, in any event - though HY is covering some familiar ground here, how's this novel? Well, it's long - I read nearly 70 pages last night, and that's less than 10 percent of novel and I feel I'm just now starting to get a handle on the characters. The story centers on 4 mid-20s guys, the college friends: JB, Willem, Jude, and Malcolm. It takes nearly 50 pages or so to start to get them straight, but I'm getting there. What's truly unusual and a bit puzzling about this novel is that, 70+ pages in, the novel is entirely made up of back story: HY tells us in an interwoven fashion, the back story on each of the four, with passages from their time together in college, their childhoods, their housing situations in NYC, etc. There is no "foreground" to the novel, however; most novels would begin with some kind of action, problem, situation, conflict, or crisis, and then once the author establishes the narrative the author would begin to build in the back story, as needed. It's a very odd strategy to give only back story, because we are getting to know something about these people but not getting to see why we should care about them. My sense is HY is pulling her punches and will introduce some narrative tension down the road - she's working on a very large canvas here and knows she has time to let her story unfold in its due course - but she's in danger of losing readers (me) unless she gets with the fundamental rule of narrative: show, don't tell.
Monday, February 6, 2017
Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, ends with a touching but over-the-top reconciliation, as Jarvis, the white landholder, donates a most of his money to the small, nearby village where Kolamu (?) is the priest; these two men are first bound by tragedy - K's son murdered J's son - and now J, instead of holding bitterness and revenge in his heart, takes pity on the impoverished village, providing milk for the children, agricultural expertise, a dam to hold off against future drought, a new roof for the church, etc. This ending would be unbearable, except that Paton keeps playing around the edges of this sentimental conclusion. This donation by Jarvis may be a great model for this one village, but Paton makes it clear that it's by no means a solution for the entire nation of South Africa - maybe not even for this village, over time, as there will never be enough arable land to support any growth in the community. In the very final scene, K ascends a mountain to spend a night in prayer and meditation, and one thing he reflects on is: What happens if love turns to hate? Obviously, the Jarvis donations are generous and heartfelt and are saving his small village, but there's also an assumption of paternalism and patronizing. The question that Jarvis cannot even comprehend is: Why should the black majority depend on the benevolence of the white landholders? What happens when the blacks of South Africa seek more than patronizing handouts, seek to run the government and own the land? Those questions are beyond the score of this novel, from 1948, and Paton himself seems only dimly aware of the immanence of black revolution, but to his credit he also recognizes that the sentimental, romantic conclusion to his narrative could not endure, could not be replicated at scale. His novel contains the recognition of its own undoing.
Sunday, February 5, 2017
The second section of Alan Paton's 1048 Cry, the Beloved Country, is a little heavy-handed, as much of this section concerns the trial of the priest Kumalo's son, charged with murdering Jarvis, a white liberal South African. The problem is, there's not a lot of dramatic tension surrounding this trial, as the accused has confessed to the murder charge and the case is all about the severity of the sentence. There is also a lot of material in this section about the murdered man and about his father, who comes to J-burg to attend the trial; this material culminates when Jarvis sr. finds, and reads, an lengthy essay his son left behind in which he expresses despair at the liberal politics - the proposals to provide better education, wages, and family support for the black African natives. He never quite says so, but it seems as if his thoughts are moving toward a more radical solution - whether a black revolution or some form of popular sovereignty, which of course would (and did) give the black majority control of the government. These were really bold and seemingly unrealistic positions even to suggest from a S. African writer in 1948 - Paton doesn't quite get there, but he gets probably as close as he could without risking exile or worse. But as a novelist, he's in danger of losing control of his narrative, which is becoming increasingly polemical (and melodramatic, as the father of the murdered man and the murderer meet, almost by chance). But after the trial Paton gets back to the human story that is driving this narrative: Kumalo's odyssey through J-burg, has failed attempts to rescue his son and to help his wayward sister, Gertrude. At the end of this section, Kumalo is preparing to return to his village home, bringing his sister and her daughter w/ him, but then there's a twist at the very end of the section (which I won't disclose at this point). The story lives or dies with our engagement with and sympathy or empathy for Kumalo - so honest, so trusting, so ineffectual. Part 3 will obviously be about his journey home, or at least his attempted journey.
Saturday, February 4, 2017
Trying to come to terms w/ Alan Paton's politics in his 1948 novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. On one level he appears to espouse the classic liberal positions regarding imperialism, colonialism, and racism (in this novel about his native South Africa): he bravely shows his readers the incredible poverty and the exploitation of the native black population, but he does so shrewdly and with an even hand, never stepping away from the corrupt black political forces that co-opt and the rights of black people, unafraid to show black crime (the central event of the novel involves a young black African killing a white man during a home invasion) - and his characters raise all the classic liberal solutions: a better educational, prison reform, access to land for farming, etc. He also writes sympathetically about resistance in the black communities, in particular about an organized boycott of the bus system. All to the good and no doubt very brave and forward-thinking in its time - but what contemporary readers will note is the one thing Paton does not raise (at least in the first half of the novel): black sovereignty, majority rule, social revolution (these are one and the same). He write this novel before the establishment of Apartheid - a social "solution" so reprehensible he doesn't even consider it. But could he have foreseen figures such as Mendela? It seems he can't even imagine a South Africa ruled by the black majority. That said, perhaps he leaves a window open to a more radical solution: in his several chapters in which the various (white) characters consider the various liberal solutions to alleviate the poverty of the black majority, their conversations tend to end in despair: education, a plot of land, etc - just isn't enough, can't be enough - as we see from the young man accused of murder, who had been assigned to the most progressive of "reformatories," to no avail. By undercutting all of the liberal solutions, perhaps Paton is steering his readers to the more radical, almost unthinkable at the time, solution - black nationalism - without his even mentioning the term.
Friday, February 3, 2017
The first section of Alan Paton's 1948 classic, Cry, the Beloved Country (a really unusual title, if you think about it: if it's a direct address, why the article "the"?) builds toward one final disaster in the life of Kumulo, the village priest from the South African countryside who travels to Johannesburg to deal w/ several family crises: bringing aid to his sick sister, and trying to find his son who has lost contact for many years. He embarks on an Odyssey through the streets, slums, and shanty-towns in and near J-Burg, hearing reports that his son is a criminal; at last he learns that his son, along with 2 others young men (one of whom is his nephew, son of the politician brother, John), robbing the house of a white South African (who, to make matters more complex, had been a great friend of the black South Africans), panics and shoots the man to death. With great help from two local priests, Kumulo finds a respected white lawyer to take on the case of his son. This section brings a bi of drama, if not melodrama, into the ambling plot of this story, which has up to this point been a tour, that we see through Kumulo's village eyes, of the horrors and inequities in South Africa at the time (maybe still, in different ways). Paton deserves a lot of credit for many things: shining a harsh light on these inequities, little know to the world at large at that time, as well as doing so with great honesty: Kumulo's son is no angel, and the people he has lived with - notably the young woman who will bear his child - are difficult and complex people as well. Many authors might have made the pregnant girlfriend a Madonna figure, but Paton shows us that she has led a troubled and far-from-saintly life. Similarly, the young white man who runs a reform school for delinquent black youth (a job similar to Paton's) is deeply flawed - bursting out in anger and Kumulo when he learns of the murder charge (he later apologizes and seeks Kumulo's pardon). These are small touches, but they make the novel less tendentious and more nuanced, complex, and engaging.
Thursday, February 2, 2017
I've never read it, but Alan Paton's 1948 (debut) novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, was a hugely influential book in its time and a mega-best seller. On recommendation from friend FP, I am checking this novel out (literally, from the BPL) - and from the first third or so it's easy to see why this novel was so significant and so well-received. My guess is that white American and European readers, in that era, new very little about poverty in third-world countries and even less about exploitation of black African people in their native lands - particularly by the vast European mining conglomerates. I believe that apartheid itself was not in effect in South Africa in 1948, but the seeds were there - and this novel provides us with a harrowing and detailed account of the poverty and exploitation, as well as of the efforts of a very few to make their world better. Interestingly, Paton isn't doctrinaire in his narrative: one character is a black political leader whose more about bombast and personal aggrandizement; the black family at the center of the novel are by no means angelic; and there's some indication that the black tribal leaders are a hindrance to reform and all too willing to form alliances with the ruling white community. In other words, the novel is full of first-hand observation about a wide sector of the population of S. Africa. Through the first third, it's pretty sorrowful and depressing - hard to see how there's any way out of the poverty and exploitation short of complete, violent revolution - and that seems nearly impossible, with the black community fully oppressed by the white. We'll see how the narrative develops. As a novel, Cry etc. is a bit clunky: at its heart it's a story of a priest from rural SA called into J-burg to try to help his fallen sister, and he also embarks on a search for his son who'd gone to the big city and lost family contact. Through his journey from station to station in search of his family members we see many aspects of SA life - informative, but a little schematic as a narrative device. The writing is clean and straightforward, however, with a few strained passages of lyricism. But Paton accomplished his goal of bringing world attention to the plight of native Africans in his land - he was a brave writer, and he fought apartheid over the course of his life.
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Soseki's Kokoro - a rare novel that develops slowly and gets better as it moves toward its powerful conclusion
Quibbles and concerns that I raised in two previous posts aside, by the end I came to appreciate Natsume Soseki's 1914 novel, Kokoro. The third and final section (which makes up about half of this 200-page novel) is the Sensei's explanation of why and how he became a misanthrope; he reveals in this testament, in the form of a long letter to the narrator, his acolyte, and he also unveils the mystery of why he goes alone once a month to visit the grave-site of a friend who died young. In part, any contemporary reader will ask: Why did it take you so long to tell us the central events in this narrative, the events that, in a sense, lie "at the heart of things" (which is a rough translation of the title, Kokoro)? Of course the answer is that this diffidence, the avoidance of conflict and confrontation, is "at the heart of" the character of the sensei and in fact it would appear of all of educated Japanese society in the era of this novel. The long lead-in to the central narrative is therefore essential for understanding the characters in this novel; if they could have told the story in a straightforward and direct manner, the story itself would not exist. What this mean: the tragedy that we learn of in part 3 all occurred because of reticence, an almost pathological inability of the sensei, in his youth (and still, until he writes the testimony) to express his feelings to another. He's like a Japanese Hamlet, or Profrock (note that Soseki was a professor of English literature), and the novel is a perfect illustration of the tragedy of human relationships that Forster posited: Only connect. The characters don't connect, with tragic results (I will not give away the details). I have found that a large # of novels that I've read start off well, with promise, but by the end fizzle out, disappoint, or wander into the sensational and the improbable; readers of these posts will find many instances of my disenchantment. I have to say that Soseki's Kokoro is the exception, the inverse - it got better and more powerful is it slowly built toward its conclusion; I might have given up on it, except that it's relatively short and even at the halfway point the end was in sight. It was worth the journey.