Little Library of the Lair
Fiction Readings J-Z
Fiction Readings A-H
By author, J-Z
Jackson, Jon A. Hit on the House. New York: Dell Publishing, 1993. 297
Intra-mob treachery in Detroit, with hit men getting hit by other hit men, explodes into greater mayhem when obnoxious, uneducated but mechanically gifted little Gene Lande starts blowing scum away as a way of getting a little respect. Detective Sergeant “Fang” Mulheisen stumbles through this web without ever understanding any of it.
“It’s funny to talk about Detroit when you’re someplace else.”
“Really? Why would you say that?”
“Well, you know,” she [Bonny, Gene Lande’s wife] said, “You run into these people and you both are like ‘Isn’t it great? We’re not in Detroit!’ Even if you’re in, maybe, Buffalo.” 
“You white folks have run out on Detroit,” she [Yvonne Marshall] said, “but you still need it, to make money out of it. We’ll have something called the Greater Detroit Urban Zone. Reorganize all the services, realign the taxes, and cut through all this bull crap of all these little towns that ring the city-Warren, Harper Woods, the Grosse Pointes (why in hell should there be five Grosse Pointes?), Royal Oak, Ferndale, Hamtramck, Center Line (Center Line!) Why there’s dozens of them. Already the police have so much bureaucratic red tape to get through when someone robs a store on Eight Mile Road-it’s just crazy. The zone will take in Wayne County, Oakland County, Washtenaw and we’ll have a CEO instead of a mayor, a zone commission instead of a city council” 
Jing Wang, ed. China’s Avant-Garde Fiction. tr. Howard Goldblatt ed. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998. tr. Howard Goldblatt
Fascinating stories from China’s short-lived “avant garde” literary movement of the 1980s.
Jones, Edward P. 2003. The Known World. New York: Amistad (HarperCollins).
This powerful novel, like a Brueghel painting, is a crowd scene of individual portraits where each character is engaged in some intense, private activity. The collective ritual in this case is slavery in the ante-bellum South of the U.S., and the characters include black slaves, black freemen and women some of whom are themselves slave owners, whites of various social statuses and backgrounds, and an Indian of ambiguous status – not quite enslavable, but not quite a white. Some of these characters, black and white, attempt to behave honorably without always succeeding; some do cruel things thoughtlessly or selfishly. All are trapped in a system that rewards whites for cruelty even when they want to be just, and servility from blacks no matter how hard they struggle to attain and retain dignity. The women – especially the black women — are as vivid as the men. Though most of the action gets started in one county in Virginia in the 1840s, Jones wants to know what became of his creatures after they left the county, some as far as Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, and shows us the lives of the surviving blacks many decades later, after the Civil War and emancipation. Some of them do achieve dignity. 20051121
Kadare, Ismail. The Siege. (Original: Kështjella. Roman, 1970.) Trans. Jusuf Vrioni (Albanian to French); David Bellos (French to English). New York: Canongate, 2008.
In the summer of 1429 the greatest army ever seen, under command of Tirsun Pasha, attacks the citadel that is the first line of defense of Christian Albania, expecting to conquer it by rapid assault — but every stratagem (repeated assaults, undermining, infestation with diseased rats, and finally discovering and cutting the city’s aqueduct) fails, and when the rains come (saving the city from surrendering to thirst) the remains of the vast army withdraw in disorder from the now half-ruined town. Officers, men and the pasha’s harem women of the Ottoman horde are individualized, speaking or thinking their anxieties and hopes, while the besieged citadel is represented by a single voice (perhaps that of a clerical chronicler?) representing the concerns of the whole population. Among the Ottomans, the most memorable characters include the career-anxious pasha (if he conquers, he may even gain command of a future siege of Constaninople: if he fails, it will be the end of his career and possibly his life), the fearful chronicler looking for impressive, heroic phrases to describe the disappointing siege (possibly a self-caricature of Kadare, cast in such a role by Enver Hoxha); the cynical, pragmatic Quartermaster General (who knows that an army travels on its stomach); the self-important poet and the doctor hoping to spread disease; the clever janissary Tuz Okçan, and the harem women, especially the pasha’s favorite, Exher, and “Blondie”. Descriptions of siege warfare are extremely vivid: Attempts to scale the walls with long ladders, which are burnt by the defenders pouring boiling pitch, the difficult and dangerous work of sappers trying to tunnel under the wall, the casting and firing of a new, big cannon, the horrors of mutilation, the fears, jealousy, moments of drunken exuberation and other moments of despair among the besiegers and the great anxiety of the besieged. The conversations among the harem women, completely at the mercy of the pasha, and the eunuch charged with serving them and keeping their pubis shaved for the pasha’s pleasure, are especially chilling.
Kadare wrote this in 1969, when Enver Hoxha — Mao Tse-Tung’s only ally in Europe — feared Soviet invasion in the wake of the invasion of Czechoslovakia & fomented national anxiety about a possible siege. The idolized 15th-century Albanian resistance leader George Castrioti, known as “Skanderbeg” (“Lord Alexander”), is mentioned frequently but (prudently) Kadare never describes him directly or lets him appear. Kadare’s strong insistence on the Christian faith of the defenders is probably historically accurate for the period, just prior to the actual Ottoman conquest and conversion to Islam, but was politically uncomfortable. In 1990 Kadare, Albania’s most celebrated novelist, left for France & began revising this and other works, expanding this novel with pieces that had been cut by censors in 1969; the French translation, on which this English translation is based, is of that expanded version. In 2005 Kadare became the first winner of the Man Booker International Prize.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. Sailing to Sarantium. New York: HarperPrism, 1998. 533pp.
I read this mainly because I too am writing a novel about Byzantium, and wanted to see what Kay had done with it. By labeling Constantinople and its empire “Sarantium,” calling Rome “Rhodias” and endowing his planet with two moons (one blue), that is, by presenting the story as a fantasy rather than historical fiction, he permits himself some convenient distortions and no doubt saved himself a lot of detailed research. Not that he has neglected his research — he has done lots and lots of it, in order to re-imagine the imperial court and the street life of Constantinople in the heyday of the empire. But he is not obliged to say just what date that heyday was, and can combine events and customs from different moments in that empire’s 1,100-year history. Mostly, what he seems to have in mind is the reign of Justinian (527-565 AD), and particularly his project to build the world’s largest and most magnificent domed cathedral, the Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”), inaugurated with a spectacular feast — unfortunately not included in the novel — in 537.The chief protagonist is the “Rhodian” artisan Crispin, a mosaicist, whom the emperor — here called Valerius — has summoned to decorate, as magnificently as possible, the great dome.
In the book’s 533 pages there are several incidents and many forebodings of more important events, but these larger events never come to pass. Kay must see himself as like his mosaicist, constructing an intricate design of many pieces — tesserae, in the case of Crispin, incidents in Kay’s case. And the author is a skillful artisan. All the incidents do ultimately connect. And, like Crispin’s design for the great dome (we only get to see the design, because the story ends just as he’s about to start its execution), Kay’s novel has a couple of larger, more complex incidents to balance the composition: an encounter with a magical, terrible bison called a zubir to which the northern pagans must sacrifice maidens, and a long, athletically written (he must have been exhausted at his word processor) eight-chariot race on the Hippodrome. I don’t know what the zubir is based on, if anything, or the magical mechanical birds that hold women’s souls, but the chariot race tries to bring alive the races of Constantinople’s real Hippodrome. And much is made of the sporting factions, Blues, Greens, Whites and Reds, which also really existed. This is a large and well-constructed work of craft, that holds the eye and leads it from event to event. But because the events themselves, while interconnected, do not create a cumulative tension but each has only its own minor and isolated resolution, it is only a minor work of art. 00/9/17
Kessel, Joseph. Makhno et sa juive. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1987.
In the early morning in a crummy Paris bar for Russian émigrés, a sickly and angry cigarette vendor insists on telling the story of the pitiless Ukrainian anarchist terrorist, massacrer of Orthodox and especially Jews in the civil wars of 1917-18, who is suddenly softened and almost humanized by a gentle Jewish girl who shows him compassion. Vividly and compellingly written, makes you feel the fear when Makhno comes to town, a monster so complex that his abrupt (and probably brief) sensitivity is completely plausible. Makhno was a real anarchist guerrilla chieftain who also appears in Isaac Babel’s stories in Red Cavalry. 07/10/13
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999. 543
From the first, we step into prose as dense and fecund as the African forest it describes.
“The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. … This forest eats itself and lives forever.”
Nathan Price, a white Southern Baptist preacher, has taken his Georgia-born family to a remote village of the Congo in 1959, on the eve of independence. He is determined to teach the Africans God’s word and American farm techniques. While his refusal to adapt to African climate and customs carry the family closer to disaster, his wife and four daughters do adapt and are transformed in different ways.
One will grow up to be a champion of the extreme white privilege that she can enjoy only in black Africa. Another will marry a Congolese and identify herself with him and the country. The third will apply her African-based knowledge of living things to research on viruses, and the littlest will become most literally a part of Africa. And the mother — well, hers will be a bitter sort of triumph.
But the most memorable characters are not the four Price women, but those we see through their eyes: Among the Africans, the imposing and ceremonious village chief, the crafty witch-doctor, the idealistic young Lumumbist, and many women, including a neighbor with no legs who surreptitiously supports the white family. Among the whites, some hypocritical and other more generous missionaries, a sleazy arms trafficker, and the Lear-like monster Nathan Price. Viewing them all from four points of view is an effective way to present the complex and violent story of Congolese independence and its sequels. 020309
Korkut, Dede. The Book of Dede Korkut, tr. Geoffrey Lewis. London: Penguin, 1974.
Part of the charm of old folktales is their lack of our usual reference points of time and place. The warriors and princesses in these stories did not think of their homeland as Central Asia, but simply as the center of their world. Nor did they think of themselves as Turks — they called themselves Oghuz, of whom there were two great bands: the Inner and the Outer Oghuz. The “Turks” were another, related tribe, but the Han Chinese and other outsiders called them all by that label, and eventually the Oghuz accepted it. These tales reflect a time before the Oghuz had begun their great migrations westward (pushed out of their eastern steppes by their cousins, the even more aggressive Mongols), around the 9th and 10th centuries, and before the majority of them had been converted to Islam. The version we have was edited and printed in the century after the Oghuz’s most famous descendants, the “Ottomans” (people of Osman), had taken Constantinople (1453) and were still expanding their empire. The old dede, or “grandfather” or “holy man,” who first compiled these stories may or may not really have been named Korkut. See “Adult Education among the Oghuz.”
Krich, John. A Totally Free Man. 1988 ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981. 171
Fidel Castro tells his life story to a tape recorder. ntbk 3/11/88 (34-6). Implausible premise, funny and probably generally accurate history. See my essay, Mermaids and Other Fetishes.
Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Translated by Michael Henry Heim. Edited by Philip Roth, Writers From the Other Europe. London, New York: Penguin Books, 1980. 237
Fiction interspersed with essays, autobiographical references & flights of fancy. What holds it together are: Themes of “laughter” (subversive of the solemnity of dictators) and “forgetting” (the dictators’ tool, to control the present by controling the past); the opposition between “angels,” who represent, not the good, but the well-ordered, & Satan, who represents chaos, disorder, improvisation; life is really only tolerable when these two forces are in balance (or are alternating). The stultifying dominion of the angels is represented by the spaced-out bliss of the circle dancers, refusing to see all that is ugly and inharmonious, rising above the steeples and spires of Prague.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. 198 pp.
The title story is an interesting twist on the famous cave scene in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India – – here, instead of a hysterical Englishwoman confronting a polite Indian male tour guide, it’s a near-hysterical Americanized Indian woman who shares a confidence with the polite Indian male tour guide without even considering the effects her story may have on him.
Like any collection of stories, this one is uneven, in part deliberately so, because Lahiri experiments with different voices and different points of view. The most interesting to me was “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,” told by a collective “we” representing the women in Bibi Haldar’s neighborhood in an Indian city. Bibi’s malady, and the miraculous cure, remain mysterious, so the story is really about that collective voice, which tells us about the ordinary assumptions and routines of that neighborhood’s respectable (though clearly not affluent) wives. In “Sexy,” Lahiri assumes the p.o.v. of a naïve young American woman who allows herself to be seduced by a dashing, married Indian gentleman who clearly is experienced at this sort of affair. It’s a pretty successful effort to stand apart from her own subculture – middle-class Indian expats in the US Northeast – and look at one of her own as a native American would see him. Lahiri does something like this again in “At Mrs. Sen’s,” where the p.o.v. character (narrated in third person) is a little American boy observing his Indian baby-sitter. This is the most powerful story in the collection, making excruciatingly vivid the anxieties of many women like Mrs. Sen, uprooted (for the sake of the husband’s career) from the only culture that makes sense to her.
Not much happens in Lahiri’s world. Even the unseen family of Mr. Pirzada (“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”), seemingly endangered by the ferocious ethnic war that tore Pakistan into two countries (one now called Bangladesh), emerges utterly unscathed. Only one truly poor person truly suffers, the possibly delusional Boori Ma who loses her humble garret and caretaker’s job, in some Indian city, in the story “A Real Durwan.” For the most part, Lahiri’s is a gentle world of curry and cosmetics and mild domestic tensions, a pleasant and quiet place to visit, but rather boring.
Larson, RD. Evil Angel (Nibley Bristol [UK]: BeWrite Books, 2002).
This is a deliciously suspenseful novel, with a fascinatingly insane, immensely rich and seductive whirlwind wreaking havoc in the lives of a lot of more or less normal, even likeable people. What will she do next? You HAVE to keep reading — you can’t just leave those characters on the brink of some new disaster. And the sex. Well, actually, the foreplay, because Terri Hamilton, the homocidal maniac egged on by her evil angel, is mostly into titillation, and even the saner people — her soon-to-be ex-husband Jack and his new flame Hilary — can’t get much beyond foreplay before Terri breaks in to spoil their tryst. The story builds up tremendous tension and at the end — or nearly the end, because we’re left to guess what becomes of Terri — we just let our breath out.
The Constant Gardener by John le Carré
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
John LeCarré here sets in motion a dozen or more morally and psychologically complex characters in many directions at once, leading into three major stories and at least a half a dozen lesser ones. The framing story is about Big Pharma, the enormously wealthy multinational pharmaceutical companies which can cure you or kill you to make a profit, and the people who try to be sure they do mostly good things and curb its corrupt tendencies. The second is an adventure story of a lone man, the “constant gardener”of the title, using his wits against an enormous conspiracy with deadly power — much like LeCarré’s famous intelligence operative George Smiley, but here the enemy is not Iron Curtain spy rings but Big Pharma, which has killed his wife. Finally, and here the subtlety and complexity of LeCarré’s imagination is best displayed, there is the story of divided loyalties, virtue and weakness and ultimately self-betrayal, exhibited to some degree by several characters but especially by the gifted, deeply religious and morally confused Markus Lorbeer.
LeCarré’s fictional DKV, with enormous financial resources and political influence, hopes to make millions from an anti-TB drug created by a smaller partner based in Kenya, and is willing to bribe or otherwise pressure doctors, scientific journals, hospitals and regulators to get it approved and paid for with public money; meanwhile the operation in Kenya is testing the drug on Kenya’s poor, not necessarily a bad thing if there are adequate safeguards. But there are not: with the complicity of government officials and common thugs, the companies suppress information about the drug’s sometimes lethal side-effects and even go to the extreme of murdering those who are about to expose their practice.
Besides the psychologically complex characterizations, LeCarré offers vivid descriptions of both social and physical settings in Kenya, London, Elba and even Winnipeg. The book is seldom boring. But there are too many implied stories left unresolved, the “constant gardener” who occupies most of the story, Justin Quayle, seems far less interesting than many of the minor characters whom we glimpse too briefly (including Markus Lorbeer) or never see at all because they are dead before the story begins (Quayle’s wife Tessa and the good doctor Arnold Bluhm), and the central story — the denunciation of bad practices of some pharmaceutical companies — is hardly news.
Lee, Chang-Rae. Native Speaker. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995. 349
A tedious, slow-moving, vastly over-praised story about a young Korean American man in New York, redeemed somewhat by sensitive reflections on the confusion and between-ness of the immigrant’s experience. The only two interesting, complex characters are the narrator-protagonist himself, Henry Park, and his father, a strong-willed immigrant who fills Henry with admiration for his tenacity and ingenuity at the same time as he embarrasses him for his old-country ways and stubborn prejudices. Unfortunately we see too little of this father. Instead, Lee embeds his observations on immigrant lives in Queens, New York, in a silly plot about a clandestine company of identity spies (Henry is one of them), who gain the confidence of outstanding immigrants in order to destroy them. This requires Lee to introduce a lot of irrelevant verbiage about Henry Park’s reports to the sneaky and nearly feature-less president of the spy firm, but you can skip over this stuff. Henry Park’s spy-target, City Councilman John Kwang, inspires more interesting thoughts, even though he is as shallowly drawn as most of the other characters. Except for Henry’s father, the characters exist merely as foils for Henry Park to meditate obsessively on his own adaptation to America. 020324
Leonard, Elmore. Cuba Libre. New York: Delacorte Press, 1998. 343 pp.
Cowboy Ben Tyler in Cuba 1898 gets caught up in the independence war with cruel Spanish officers, less cruel Cuban officers in service to Spain, independence fighters both noble & treacherous, & a decadent American millionaire landowner; he wins the girl (Amelia, a tough, opportunistic American) &, after settling all scores with his Colt .44s, takes her to start a cattle ranch in Cuba libre. Ridiculous story, in which Cuba is merely a backdrop for the actions of American characters plucked from a US western, filled in with meticulous research on naval armaments& prison conditions of the time. 99/7/21
Leonard, Elmore. Swag. 1985 ed. New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1976. 229 1985
Used-car salesman Frank Ryan recruits cement mixer& chronic car thief Ernest Stickley, Jr. (“Stick”) for spree of armed robbery in Detroit’s suburbs. But they break several of Ryan’s 10 rules – “Never associate with people known to be in crime,” etc. – when they team up with black hustler Sportree & his allies to rob J. L. Hudson’s in Detroit; unplanned mayhem in Hudson’s, double-cross by Sportree, undone by Stick & Ryan’s death-defying double-double-cross & murder of Sportree. A clever white cop guided by an even cleverer fat black prosecutor catches them & the loot. Formerly titled Ryan’s Rules.
Mahfouz, Naguib. The Day the Leader Was Killed. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.
Takes place in Cairo not on a single day, but over an unspecified span of weeks culminating October 6, 1981. On that day a young low-level government clerk named Elwan Fawwaz Muhtashim explodes in rage at the bourgeois frustrations of his bourgeois love aspirations, and commits a folly that redeems his honor but will certainly destroy his career. On that day also, the symbol and partial cause of the frustrations of the urban middle class, President Anwar al-Sadat, is assassinated.
This is a slight book of limited ambition, a piece — barely more than a chapter — in Mahfouz’s life-time oeuvre of huge ambition, to retell the whole modern Arab experience. He tells the story in alternate chapters from three first-person points of view: Elwan; his grandfather — as old as the century, a retired school teacher who remembers his youthful participation in the 1919 “National Movement” and who sees Elwan’s dilemma in that long historical perspective; and Randa, Elwan’s long-time girlfriend and fiancée, who works in the same government office. She loses much of her respect but none of her affection for Elwan when, bowing to economic and parental pressure, he declares their engagement to be at an end.
Mahfouz, Naguib. Children of Gebelawi. Translated by Philip Stewart. London: Heinemann, 1981.
In a noisome, quarrelsome alley of Cairo, people tell stories of Gebelawi, a mysterious & powerful old man who is the progenitor of them all, & of the heroes who periodically have come to win justice & a fair share of Gebelawi’s estate for the people of the alley. These heroes include Gebelawi’s son Adham (put in charge of the estate governed from the Big House, where Gebelawi has shut himself up with his gardens & servants) & his vengeful older brother Idris (who cajoles Adham to peek at Gebelawi’s forbidden book of knowledge, thus getting Adham & his wife expelled from the big house); Gebel, generations later, a poor orphan brought up in the Trustee’s mansion, who believes he has heard Gebelawi himself instruct him to lead and challenges the rule of the Trustee& his Chief (who terrorizes the alley) & leads his people in a successful rebellion, leading them to control of the promised Estate & becoming Trustee; himself; Rifaa, a gentle youth, son of a carpenter, who is not interested in the Estate but in happiness for all, & who is nevertheless murdered by the chiefs–his body disappears from its tomb, probably taken by his loving disciples, but the story is told that Gebelawi himself came and took him up; Kassem, who wants the Estate & happiness for all, and, after marrying a rich woman & becoming a prosperous merchant himself, leads his followers to a mountain redoubt from which they attack the chiefs of the alley & ultimately triumph–Kassem enforces literally the injunction “an eye for an eye” & justice reigns during his lifetime, although succeeding trustees & chiefs fall back into the old ways; and Arafa, a non-believer or at least a skeptic regarding the power of Gebelawi, who hopes to redeem his people by teaching them all magic, and who causes the death of the ancient Gebelawi by tunneling into his house to peek at the forbidden book–he never sees the book, but in his fright he strangles an old Negro servant, & Gebelawi (whom Arafa never sees) is then reported to have died of shock. A forerunner of Satanic Verses, which caused a similar (if less bloodthirsty) outcry in 1959, when the mullah’s tried to stop its serial publication.1/19/91 1st pub. as serial in Al-Ahram, Cairo, 1959.
Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice.” (Der Tod in Venedig) In Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories. Tr. H. T. Lowe-Porter. New York: Vintage Books, 1954
Gustave von Aschenbach, a famous but lonely 60-ish author in Munich, decides to spark his dull life by a an unscheduled vacation in Venice, where he is so overwhelmed by the beauty and youth of an unreachable object that he dies of desire.
The love-object is a young boy (12? 10?) who is called, Aschenbach thinks, “Tadzio” and whose Polish-speaking family is staying in the same hotel. The language barrier could be easily breached, if this were a realistic story; those prosperous Poles would surely be able to communicate in French or German. Rather, it is Aschenbach’s inhibitions that prevent him from ever speaking directly to the boy, while desire drives him to spy on him. Death comes to Aschenbach from a plague that he could easily have avoided, if he had not been sneaking around the infested parts of town for further glimpses of the boy.
Mann was himself a famous author by this time (1911), though only 36. The story seems to be an ironic commentary, a mean-spirited joke, about his profession — that no matter how cultured a writer or other artist may seem, animal desires win out. Mann uses the story as a structure to hang various reflections about art and desire, his and Aschenbach’s. For example:
“Men do not know why they award fame to one work of art rather than another. Without being in the faintest conoisseurs, they theink to justify the warmth of their commendations by discovering in it a hundred virtues, whereas the real ground of their applause is inexplicable — it is sympathy.” (Pp. 10-11 in my edition)
“Sympathy” as in just liking the author’s voice, I suppose. Or the cover photo. There’s probably something to that.
Here Aschenbach imagines himself as Michelangelo:
“And yet the pure, strong will which had laboured in darkness and succeeded in bringing this godlike work of art [Tadzio] to the light of day — was it not known and familiar to him, the artist? Was it not the same force at work in himself when he strove in cold fury to liberate from the marble mass of language the slender forms of his art which he saw with the eye of his mind and would body forth to men as the mirror and image of spiritual beauty?” (44)
“Marble mass of language” indeed! Aschenbach is a more pretentious version of Updike’s pathetic Bech, a kind of negative alter ego. Mann was having wicked fun. But here’s a passage that may (possibly) express Mann’s own view of his profession:
“This life in the bonds of art… had been a service, and he a soldier, like some of them [Aschenbach is thinking of his warrior ancestors]; and art was war — a grilling, exhausting struggle that nowadays wore one out before one could grow old. it had been a life of self-conquest, a life against odds, dour, steadfast, abstinent; he had made it symbolical of the kind of overstrained heroism the time admired, and he was entitled to call it manly, even courageous.” (56-57)
Well, maybe Mann did not really mean that. It sounds pretty ridiculous today.
“Some minutes passed before anyone hastened to the aid of the elderly man sitting there collapsed in his chair. They bore him to his room. And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease.” (75)
One hopes the world awarded him a Purple Heart to match his face.
Markson, David (2001). This is Not a Novel. Washington DC, Counterpoint.
An entertaining and provocative experiment in writing “A novel with no intimation of story whatsoever…. / And with no characters. None. … / Plotless. Characterless. / Yet seducing the reader into turning pages nonetheless.” Oddly, it works. If not a novel, it is perhaps an epic poem, if Writer says it is, or, most accurately, as he suggests on one of the last pages, “a kind of verbal fugue.” The paragraphs, some no more than two words and none more than five lines, are like (or simply are) stanzas, most containing odd facts about writers and other creative people (“Frans Hals was once arrested for beating his wife.”) A recurrent theme is the manners of death of these people, further emphasized by this repeated statement:- “Timor mortis conturbat me. / The fear of death distresses me.” Another is the ironies of anti-Semitism: “What the world would know of the Holocaust if the Germans had won” is one entire stanza. (The answer? Not much, I suppose.) The overriding theme is the writer’s right to create whatever he pleases and call it whatever he wants. “Chi son? Chi son? Son un poeta / Che cosa faccio? Scrivo.” It’s an inspiring note for any writer, or at least for this one (me) 021215.
Marris, Peter. The Dreams of General Jerusalem. London: Bloomsbury, 1988.
A parable about the grotesque misunderstandings and comic or tragic results when American and W. European do-gooders try to mesh their dreams with those of Africans. In the capital of an unnamed country (a lot like Kenya), Englishman George Eaton — who was reared there — returns at the behest of Peter Petterson, a program officer of The Foundation (also unnamed, rather like the Ford Foundation) to develop an urban plan for slum clearance and resettlement, to be financed in part by construction of a tourist hotel in the vacated seaside property. Government leaders see this as an opportunity to make money (buying up pieces of the land and adjacent property), ‘General Jerusalem’ (aka Livingstone Karuma) — a sort of Al Sharpton with a sect based in another poor neighborhood — persuades Petterson to include several of his pet projects (technical schools & industries among them) — and only British-educated Wallace Munene, childhood semi-chum of Eaton & now a minister in the government — backs the plan for its own perceived merits. Everything goes wrong: the slum is cleared precipitously and violently ahead of time, the new settlement is left shoddy and mostly unbuilt, no hotel is ever built, Munene is murdered while Eaton romances Munene’s English wife Ann. Yet, when Eaton goes back a few years later, the country has muddled through and the city seems to have found at least partial solutions to its many problems. Besides Livingstone Kuruma, the most engaging character is the fearless, disorganized American anthropologist Barbara, who sums up the whole mess in a tape recording she sends to Eaton — Munene wasn’t as pure as Eaton supposed, and nothing was as it seemed. Marris is author seven sociological studies and a former professor of urban planning (and long before that, a colonial officer in Kenya). He writes here as in his sociology with great clarity and understated humor. The dialogue is mostly believable, the sex scenes (one and a half) pretty unsteamy; as allegorical/didactic fiction goes, it is more convincing than Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. 20040113
McCaffery, Larry, ed. Avant-Pop: Fiction for a Daydream Nation. Boulder, Normal: Black Ice Books, 1993. 247
In the late 20th century, it took a lot to épater les bourgeois, since the literate bourgeois had become so jaded. Here we read a lot about cunts and gooey masturbation in nonlinear (and in one case — by Samuel R. Delany — circular) narrative. The subtlest, and possibly funniest, piece is McCaffery’s introduction (he poses as a “private e” — i.e., editor), the most inspired lunacy is, as usual, from Mark Leyner, and Kathy Acker does her aggressive cunt-in-your-face thing. Also contributions by William T. Vollman, Harold Jaffe, and some other folks I’d never heard of and may not hear of again. 020206 (See also Acker, Kathy. Blood and Guts in High School)
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Years after the great disaster that burned up the planet and filled the air with such ash that too little sunlight reaches earth for anything to grow, a man and his little boy trudge toward the sea through lifeless towns, searching for food and defining themselves as “the good guys,” while terrified of contact with the few other surviving scavengers assumed to be “bad guys” who may rob, murder and possibly eat them. At the very end, after the death of the man, the boy accepts contact with a family of three also heading down the same road, in the hope that they may also be good guys.
McCarthy achieves especially terrifying effects by the meticulousness of his descriptions and by the unexpected beauty of some of his phrases. The music of the prose creates a disquieting counterpoint to the horrors of the events. As an example of music leading up to a horror, from pp. 111-112:
They approached slowly up the drive. No tracks in the random patches of melting snow. a tall hedge of dead privet. An ancient birdsnest lodged in the dark wicker of it. They stood in the yard studying the facade. The handmade brick of the house kilned out of the dirt it stood on. The peeling paint hanging in long dry sleavings down the colummns and from the buckled soffits. A lamp that hung from a long chain overhead. …
I’m leaving out the ghastly sequel to this passage for you to discover yourself.
And then there is the peculiar ethical subtext. Here as in No Country for Old Men, McCarthy seems to be telling us that there truly are terrible things to fear, but the most terrible is the fear itself. 20090420
McCarthy, Cormac. No Country for Old Men. 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 2005.
Aging sheriff in quiet Texas county c. 1985 is defeated by a new rash of narco homicides of a scale and brutality outside of his tradition. Best things in the book are the monologues of Sheriff Ed Jim Bell, in his peculiar South Texas drawl, reflecting on violence past, on evil in all times, and on changing society now. The calculated but naïve run of welder and Vietnam vet Llewellyn Moss, who has accidentally found an attaché case with over 2 million dollars and is then pursued by two separate bands of killers, is also good — it’s what keeps you turning the pages. The intelligent, efficient Anton Chigurh, the killer that nobody lives to describe, never really comes alive as a character and is not really interesting company–as Carson Wells, another professional killer who is at first Chigurh’s pursuer but finally his victim, puts it, Chigurh has no sense of humor, just a rigid code of unemotional vengeance as a kind of justice.
McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes. New York: Touchstone, 1996.
Not fiction, strictly speaking, but a memoir narrated with the fluidity and structure or narrative “arc” of a novel. It is a beautifully told story of terrible poverty in Limerick, Ireland, from about 1934, when Francis McCourt was 4, to 1949, when he returned to New York, where he’d been born. Many forces conspire to drive the family down, but the decisive one is the alcoholic irresponsibility of the father, Malachy.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A placid southern town is revealed to be torn by intense passions as McCullers takes us into the consciousness of several of its poor and lower middle-class citizens. The girl Mick Kelly comes of age (at 15), a radical drifter is defeated once again in his efforts to make the “Don’t knows” understand how they’re oppressed, the owner of the all-night New York Café watches it all, and the town’s sole black physician finally bursts the dam of a lifetime of rage against white injustice. All these people confide in the sympathetic deaf-mute, believing he alone can understand them but he doesn’t, and he in turn attributes such deep understanding of his own emotions to a fat, self-centered deaf-mute moron. It is the black physician Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland who is the novel’s most thoroughly imagined character besides Mick, who must be a version of McCullers herself, who was only 24 when this first novel appeared. 02-10-02
The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories by Carson McCullers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This edition includes 7 stories: The Ballad of the Sad Café; Wunderkind; The Jockey; Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland; The Sojourner; A Domestic Dilemma; A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud.
“Ballad” is a strange love triangle in rural Georgia some time in the 1920s: Marvin Macy loves Miss Amelia who loves Cousin Lymon who loves Marvin Macy, and not one of these loves is reciprocated. Macy, a handsome but shiftless and mean orphan, woos Miss Amelia, the hard-hearted and hard-muscled owner of the town’s general store, who consents to marry him when he agrees to sign over all his property but turns him out of the house when he tries to get amorous; then (to the town’s immense surprise) she falls in love with a little hunchback who comes to town claiming to be a relative, Cousin Lymon. He gets her to transform her store into the town’s first and only café and then presides over it as a mischief-maker, keeping things interesting for all the town’s menfolk who come by to drink and watch what happens. But then the long-departed Marvin Macy, after a stint in prison, returns to seek revenge on the woman who has spurned him, and Cousin Lymon follows him around like a sick puppy. Finally, in a knock-down, drag-out fist fight (Amelia is bigger and stronger than Macy), Cousin Lymon suddenly and magically intervenes to give Macy the victory. Miss Amelia, betrayed, beaten and abandoned, boards up the café and the town returns to its former dreariness.
“Ballad” has the feel of a medieval European tale, with Cousin Lymon as the goblin with magical powers for mischief (at one point, in the final fight, he appears to fly through the air), Miss Amelia as a flawed larger than life hero(ine) and Marvin Macy a dark dragon-like force. What is wonderful and most memorable (besides the vivid portrayals of the dreary town & its characters) is its (disturbing) description of love as a dangerous pathology.
Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. … Let it be added here that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring – this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth.
Now, the beloved can also be of any description. The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love. …the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.
It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. for the lover is for ever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain. (pp. 33-34)
“Wunderkind” is a vignette of a girl’s emotional crisis when she comes to believe she is not a good enough piano student to live up to her teacher’s and others’ expectations. “The Jockey” reads like Hemingway, an all-male story of courage and anger at one’s failing physical strength. “Madame Zilensky” postulates the existence of a person who is simultaneously a pathological liar and a responsible & productive member of a community (a music teacher & composer). “The Sojourner” is about the loneliness of a man who has missed, or messed up, his chance for a stable marriage & determines to try again. In “A Domestic Dilemma”, a loving husband tries to understand, control & even forgive his wife’s drinking problem, and in “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud” a boy gets a lesson in the fundamentals of a kind of love much different from the variety in “Ballad of the Sad Café”, an appreciation and wonder at an object or a person even without a further relationship. 2008/08/17
Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue by Patrick Modiano
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Beautifully told, sad story of a lost child of Paris in the 1980s, whose brief passage through their lives has left an indelible and unresolved impression on at least four men who knew her. Daughter of an unwed mother with a night job in Le Moulin Rouge, disappointed and ashamed because of her rejection of admission by the Lycée Jules-Ferry (her one attempt to escape her poor routine), Jacqueline Delanque drifts into a cocaine habit with a new, more sophisticated girlfriend, then drifts into the Café Condé where the habitual idlers baptize her “Louki”; she also allows herself to be pulled into an insipid marriage with the much older director of a real estate agency where she finds work as a temp, but finding no satisfaction in his house or his circle of friends, simply decides not to return there one night but to stay with a boyfriend almost as aimless as she. She is remembered years later by a former student in l’École de Mines, by the private investigator hired by her husband to find her, and by the boyfriend who perhaps, in his immature manner, also drifting, perhaps loved her.
Besides all these people, the quartiers of Paris, each with its social class connotations, and their changing character since those days when “Louki” frequented the Café Condé, are characters in the novel.
This is the first Modiano I’ve read. I’ll want to read more of such beautiful, lyrical expression. And maybe improve my French enough to review him in that language.
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What is amazing is how much Munro can make out of so little, the lives of observant but unexceptional people, most of them in and around London, Ontario, in the 1990s or 2010s, who perhaps once in their lives have experienced an exceptional event. Within this restricted fictional territory, the author finds innumerable variations.
After the first few stories I was hoping for a change of scenery and skipped to the last, and title, story of the collection, “Too Much Happiness,” and was surprised by something quite different. Here the protagonist is an entirely exceptional person and so far from contemporary Canada she probably could not even imagine the Ontario forests and suburbs. The Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) was the first woman to earn a doctorate in a European university at a time when women weren’t admitted even to sudy in universities (summa cum laude, University of Göttingen, 1874). Kovalevskaya’s extraordinary triumphs and disappointments, including difficult romance with another Russian intellectual exile, all really occurred. The fictional imagination is in making us feel as though we are she, living all these frustrations and sometimes wild hopes, until the fatal “too much happiness.”
This is not the only wonderful story in the collection. Other favorites of mine included “Wood,” which seems to understand a man’s loneness — his need to be alone, but in a place where he feels himself as part of something greater — as clearly as Munro’s other stories understand women’s ways of relating to, and sometimes, avoiding one another. “Some Women” and “Child’s Play” are especially about that complicated ballet. “Free Radicals” is another memorable story — or rather, two memorable stories, first of a woman’s sudden and unexpected widowhood, and then of a startling irruption into her life that seems to reconfigure the meaning of everything. But even in this story, the conclusion is not an event but the protagonist’s sudden understanding of events in a new way, even though she, or he, or we, may not be able to describe just what that new understanding is.
Naipaul, V. S. Miguel Street. 1980 ed. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1959.
Naipaul’s “first written, though third published novel.” A series of character sketches from a Port-of-Spain (Trinidad) slum, related by an East Indian Trinidadian child becoming adolescent, sketch by sketch. They read like practice pieces, exercises in portraiture and dialogue, in the peculiar syntax that I suppose is (was?) characteristic of the Port-of-Spain proletariat. Book is of interest mainly for understanding Naipaul’s development of his craft. Time is impressionistic, child’s time. The early sketches take place in the “once upon a time,” or disappeared eternity, of the experience of one who is very new to the world and to whom all adults seem immutable. The story I found most memorable is “B. Wordsworth,” the poet who never existed and who was never a poet and who may or may not have survived a girl poet pregnant with their little poet, but who still left the boy narrator with the sense that he carried poetry in him. (1982.10.28)
Okri, Ben. The Famished Road. New York: Anchor, 1991. 500 pages
Sweat, spirits and poverty in rural Nigeria, as seen by a credulous spirit who consents to be born to a poor couple. Dad is immensely strong, honest and rebellious; Mum is infinitely supportive and uncomplaining; Madame Koto is fat, corrupt, powerful and sometimes kindly. Magic irrealism, which gets tiresomely repetitive. 2002/07/30
Ondaatje, Michael. Anil’s Ghost. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. 307
Terror to combat terror. Those who interfere with the killing will be killed, preferably in an exemplary manner. Your corpse will be disfigured, perhaps mutilated, or with multiple fractures, or your head may be stuck on a pole where everyone in your village must see it as they pass by. And none better remove it, lest they suffer the same fate.
This is what Ondaatje confronts in this novel. A three-way war of terror rages in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s, early 1990s: the government, trying to hold the center, against Sinhalese insurgents in the south and Tamil separatists in the north. This sort of thing is not exclusive to Sri Lanka, he recognizes in a scene describing the exhumation of terror victims in far-off Guatemala.
We witness only two acts of violence in this novel, one of them trivial in this context: Anil, the Sri Lanka-born heroine, in a rage that is both plausible and incomprehensible, stabs her obtuse American lover in the forearm and abandons him in their hotel room.
The other occurs much later, near the end of the novel: we watch a suicide bomber make his preparations, approach the president of Sri Lanka in the midst of a festival crowd, and detonate. Dozens are killed, none of them known to us from the novel.
Mostly, we are acquainted with violence by being forced to look very closely at its results, those mutilated corpses. To make a story to contain his cry of anguish, Ondaatje fashions a murder mystery. Anil, like Ondaatje a long-time expatriate, returns to Sri Lanka as a forensic pathologist for the UN Human Rights Commission. Teamed with Sarath, a sad, older Sri Lankan archeologist, reluctant to probe such dangerous issues but too good-hearted and honest to refuse, she seeks to discover the identity of a recent corpse discovered in an ancient burial ground. It is a flimsy device, but strong enough to hold the willing reader for the things Ondaatje needs to tell us, about ways of dying and killing, ancient and modern medicine, familial jealousies, the beauty of the Sri Lankan sun, its mountains, forests and waters, which somehow survive the horrible destruction of humanity. 01/4/6
Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Pamuk projects his personal melancholy — hüzün in Turkish — onto this once-great city, interspersing reminiscences of a privileged but cloistered childhood with meditations on writers and artists who have portrayed the city.
Istanbul’s hüzün, he tells us, is different from the tristesse that Claude Lévi-Strauss found in tropical cities such as Delhi or São Paulo, because “in Istanbul the remains of a glorious past civilization are everywhere visible. … For the city’s more sensitive and attuned residents, these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to its former heights of wealth, power, and culture.” (p. 101) Sensitive and attuned though he may be, he appears unaware that Delhi had “a glorious past civilization” of its own, even more ancient than Istanbul/Constantinople.
Flaubert, Gérard de Nerval, Théophile de Gautier and other foreign visitors help shape Pamuk’s vision of what the city was like before he knew it, and also, he argues, shaped the way of looking at it of later Turkish writers, particularly “the great fat poet, Yahya Kemal”; “the popular historian Reshat Ekrem Koçu”; the memoirist Abdülhuk Shinasi Hisar; and the novelist Ahmet Hamdi
Tanpınar. (Note: in Turkish, ı is a different vowel from i with a dot; it’s pronounced roughly like “uh” in English.)
To me the most interesting chapter was “The Rich,” the class from which Pamuk’s family was descending (falling) throughout his childhood, which includes this acute observation:
“If Istanbul’s westernized bourgeoisie gave support to the military interventions of the past forty years, never strenuously objecting to military interference in politics, it was not because it feared a leftist uprising (the Turkish left in this country has never been strong enough to achieve such a feat); rather, the elite’s tolerance of the military was rooted in the fear that one day the lower classes would combine forces with the new rich pouring in from the provinces to abolish the westernized bourgeois way of life under the banner of religion.” (p. 183)
His personal story here goes up to about age 20, when, in the final sentence, he declares that he is going to be a writer. His reminiscences of childhood help explain some of the peculiarities of his fiction, for example his childhood fascination with an imaginary double (“the other Orhan”), which is the central theme of The White Castle, and his fascination with miniaturists and meticulous reproduction of familiar scenes, as in My Name is Red. And the many photographs and other illustrations, one or more on almost every page, all in black and white, seem to confirm his vision of his own and his city’s hüzün.
The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A young Venetian becomes slave of a Turk whom he greatly resembles & over several decades assists in his schemes, especially the invention of a monstrous war machine, to win the favor of the sultan. Each man — slave and master — teaches the other his language & details of his culture, until, possibly but ambiguously, they exchange identities. One or the other of them escapes the wrath of the sultan (when the machine fails) & escapes to Italy. Multi-framed (a fictional contemporary claims to have discovered a manuscript, the manuscript turns out not to have been written by the person in whose voice it is told), to multiply the ambiguities of what is otherwise a not very interesting story. Ntbk 99/8/5
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Who cares who murdered Elegant Effendi? You probably won’t and I didn’t, but the question obsesses the other miniaturists working for the sultan, Refuge of the World, in 17th century Constantinople. The intrigue all has to do with the incursion of Venetian pictorial techniques perspective, individual and realistic portraiture in an ancient tradition of painting perfect and beautiful representations of idealized figures. The characters address us directly, aware that they have a reader but seemingly unaware that this reader also knows what is in the minds (or at least the stories) of the other characters. Figures from the miniaturists’ sketches in a coffee house also speak to us: a hastily drawn dog, a horse, the color red. Some of these little tales are enchanting (the dog especially), though they don’t always work together very well to make a coherent total. Besides murder by blunt instruments, mutilations and tortures, the reader also has to endure the obnoxious, self-absorbed and rather stupid Shekure, probable widow of a man missing in action and beloved of the indecisive Black (who is not a color but a painter).
Patchett, Ann. Bel Canto. New York: Perennial (HarperCollins), 2001. 318 p.
This is a fairy-tale version of the real seizure of the Japanese ambassador’s home and his party guests by a guerrilla squad of the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru in Lima in 1997. In an unnamed country that strongly resembles Peru, worldly and rich Russians, Japanese, Italians, French, and Creoles are taken captive by Quechua- and Spanish-speaking naïfs in a mansion that is like an Enchanted Castle, and the one woman among the captives a beautiful operatic soprano enchants them all. It all comes to a fairy-tale ending bloodily poetic for some, happily-ever-after for others. In narrative structure, it reminded me of Alejandro Casona’s romantic melodrama, Siete Gritos en el Mar. In subject matter, it made me appreciate the far grittier realism of Gabriel García Márquez’s Diario de un secuestro. 2002-08-06
Pouchèle, Bernard. L’étoile et le vagabond. Paris: Éditions Denoël, 1989.
Quentin, ancien instituteur de 55 ans ridé, cicatrisé, autodidacte et ironique, est devenu “vagabond” ou routard lors de la mort de sa femme Louise il y a 7 ans, sac à dos, survivant grâce aux petits boulots et la charité, jusqu’au jour où il connait Marie, 20 ans plus jeune que lui, qui l’héberge un peu par curiosité et aussi pour lui faire compagnie durant l’absence de son aimé et qui devient (aux yeux de Quentin) son “étoile” ; Quentin, qui n’a connu telle tendresse pendant tant de temps, s’est tombé follement amoureux, et se sent détruit quand elle finalement, mais avec des gestes ambiguës, lui dit qu’il faut qu’il s’en aille.
Pour moi, les charmes de ce roman furent trois: les personnages à peu près aussi complexes comme les personnes réelles, y inclus l’intelligent et sensitive Quentin; le riche argot routard, assez drôle; et la sociologie de la mouise, à travers des interpretations de Quentin. Par example, ce petit discours qu’il offre au directeur d’un foyer en Normandie:
Le monde socialisé ignore que le plus sombre du monde de l’errance se balade avec les idées les plus simplistes, sinon les plus fascisantes : rejet du différent et de l’étranger, racisme agressif au premier degré, mépris paradoxal du plus paumé, machisme archaïque dû à une expérience plus que limitée en matière des femmes. Il y en a heureusement qui gambergent un peu, mais ils sont nettement minoritaires. L’un dans l’autre, dans le monde de la route, l’extrême droite ferait du soixante-dix pour cent. N’oublions jamais que le nazisme a eu pour créateur un vagabond entouré d’un carré d’aigris. 
Powers, Richard. Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985.
Three story lines, each with its distinctive voice, two in the novelistic present (early 1980s) and one running from 1 May 1914 to some time in 1917, with ambiguous hints of later development embedded in the other two stories. An unnamed “I” (in the “present”) thinks he recognizes himself in the August Sander photo and tracks down every bit of information he can about these three young Dutch farmers, dressed in their finest and jauntily strolling through fields, on the eve of World War I. Most impressive is the powerful, vivid re-imagining of the impact of those war years on ordinary lives. (1987/11/20)
Proulx, Annie. Accordion Crimes. New York: Scribner, 1996.
A series of episodes about European immigrants to the US, their cultural dislocation & the failure, of most of them, to come even close to their aspirations. A green-button accordeon passed down the line, from one family to another, links the tales. Ntbk 1996/9/28 (p. 263)
Proulx, E. Annie. Postcards. Scribner Paperback Fiction ed. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1992.
In 1944, 24-year old Loyal Blood strangles his girlfriend Billy while raping her, abandons the rundown little family farm in Vermont and lives in the western states wretchedly, unable to approach women & unlucky in his jobs, until dying decades later as a bum; meanwhile his stubborn, violent father Mink goes to jail for burning down the barn for the insurance money, and then dies, liberating his mother Jewell to reinvent herself as a quilt-maker, and his one-armed brother Dub ends up a real estate broker in Miami who owes his success to his canny & well-connected Cuban wife, Pala. It’s a dreary but captivating story, but the greater pleasures are in the ways it is told. Detailed and surprising descriptions of outdoor scenes, from Vermont to Minnesota and Oregon, a moment on the expressway in Miami when Dub’s wife Pala is nearly lynched by a black mob furious at the acquittal of white cops who’ve killed a black motorist, the mud of the trailer camp, the quivering anxiety of a trapped female coyote, and so on. (v. Journal 99/6/21)
No gentle humor in Proulx, nothing to make you want to laugh without making you want to throw up at the same time (she has a short story where the joke is about having to cut off a dead man’s feet to get his boots), but lots of irony. Her work is (mostly, at least in these novels) anti-escapism: you put the book down to escape into a much less challenging, even less frustrating ordinary daily existence. No matter what your troubles are, Proulx’s characters have it even worse, and unlike real life, they are inescapable. When I’m walking through Manhattan and see a guy lying in rags up against a building, or a mad young woman, still pretty beneath her filth, squatting and dreamily begging at University Place & 14th, I can walk by without focusing long or in detail on what she (or he) looks like or what horrors have brought her to that state. Proulx doesn’t give me that option. There are photographers like her – Mapplethorpe was also pitiless – and comic book artists, such as whatsisname (now dead) whose work is currently on display at the New Museum. But few writers.
Pynchon, Thomas. Mason& Dixon. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997. 773
A simple tale of a slow-developing comradeship, ’round which are spun, woven and tangled many wondrous inventions and ancient Pynchon obsessions to make a dense, happy, delightful and enigmatic book.
It begins in London when the morose and newly widowed astronomer Charles Mason meets the somewhat younger, buoyant and much more physical Jeremiah Dixon, a country surveyor. These two dissimilar Englishmen — Mason a deist and the son of a gruff, love-withholding miller, Dixon a Quaker and the orphan of a coal miner in the north country — are teamed by some plot neither of them can quite penetrate, perpetrated by the Royal Society and probably British tea interests, to track the transit of Venus in Capetown, then are commissioned separately to make further astronomical observations on desolate St. Helena (many decades before Napoleon made it famous), and after many adventures are sent off to draw a line along the 40th degree of latitude to settle a boundary dispute in the American colonies. They encounter: the Learnèd English Dog, Fang; seaman Fenderbelly Bodine (no doubt an ancestor of the one who appears in Pynchon’s other novels); the neurotic and ineffectively sinister Astronomer Royal, Neville Maskelyne (villain of another book, by Dava Sobell — see below); a mechanical duck with wondrous powers of flight and conversation; a Chinese geomancer named Capt. Zhang; a gigantic axman, Stig, from the very far north; George Washington and his black slave Gershom, who is also a Jewish vaudevillian comic; Ben Franklin; wily Mohawks and other Indians; German and Dutch immigrants with peculiar obsessions; a worldwide Jesuit conspiracy communicating by mysterious telegraph, whose nuns are trained in sexual seduction in the manner of O at Roissy; an enormous “Torpedo,” an electric eel of very high current, and many other more or less fantastical creatures. On his last mission, this time without Dixon, Mason runs into Dr. Johnson and Boswell in the Hebrides, and asks Boswell if he had ever had his own Boswell.
It’s great fun, full of things to discover, and I’ll want to go back into it soon to discover some more. I may even want to read the new book by Edwin Danson, Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America (Wiley), so as to make it easier to follow Pynchon’s version. Readers of the novel may also profit from reading Dava Sobell, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), which deals with the machinations of Maskelyne to prevent John Harrison, inventor of a reliable sea-going clock, from winning the Royal Society’s prize for solving the problem of longitude.
Réage, Pauline. Story of O. Translated by Sabine d’Estrée. 1967 ed. New York: Grove Press, 1965. 199
Exquisitely exciting fantasy of sweet suffering in bondage. Originally published in Paris, France, Chez Jean-Jacques Pauvert in 1954 as Histoire d’O.
Roth, Philip. The Counterlife. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987. 324
So clever and witty that now I want to read the rest of the Nathan Zuckerman saga. In this novel, Zuckerman recounts his own death (and writes his own obituary), and makes many astute observations of the social anthropology of Jews in New York and Israel.
Saki, (Hugh Munro). Short Stories. Ed. Emlyn Williams, 1978.
Includes 60 favorites, including “The Open Window” and a moving, unfunny sequence from the trenches of France in 1916 (where Munro would soon be killed by a German sniper), “Birds on the Western Front.” Except for the last mentioned, most of these little stories are just spiced froth, cleverly told jokes playing on (but not challenging) stereotypes. 2008-12-12
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. 1951. New York: Bantam Books, 1969.
17-year old Holden Caulfield, bright, literary and extremely depressed, tells us in his teen-age slang how he totally cracked up last year, getting expelled from his 4th private school just before Christmas, then without telling his parents taking a bus to New York City, where he had a disastrous misadventure with a prostitute (he was too depressed and too scared to fuck), pissed off a former girlfirend, got obnoxiously drunk and offended or ran off from adults who tried to help, finally sneaked into his own and his parents’ home to see his kid sister Phoebe. Why he is such a mess is a mystery, but the death of a beloved younger brother Allie from leukemia a few years earlier may have started his downward spiral. He mentions repeatedly an older brother, now a screenwriter in Hollywood, as a “sell-out” — according to Holden, he should be producing pure, uncomercial literature. The only good people in Holden’s cosmos are the innocent children, like Phoebe and the departed Allie, and he imagines saving them from falling off a precipice, himself as “the catcher (of children in danger) in the rye” — he has misheard Burns’ line, “If a body meet a body comin’ through the rye” as “If a body catch a body…” (Phoebe puts hims straight.) At the end, he’s in a hospital or someplace like that in California, and sorry that he’s told us his whole sad tale, because every time he confides in someone (except maybe little children) he comes to regret it.
Our Spanish partners in the reading club found it amusing, but were not much impressed. I think we’re all too old and have seen too much to be shocked by another adolescent crisis of a very privileged kid. (His parents are well off and buy him anything he wants, and his much more stable siblings love him, so what’s his problem?) Some of Holden Caulfield’s observations of social types are spot on, though, and his irreverence and slang (even in Spanish translation, but better in English) are sometimes very funny. 20090215
Light Years by James Salter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Salter is famous for his beautiful sentences, beginning here with “We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind. This great estuary is wide, endless. …”
The opening of Light Years seems to open a world, a very particular world of rough, unyielding nature — river, trees, rocks — and the precarious and unstable marks left by generations of humans, down to the youngest, two little girls who crouch outside the bathroom, urging their story-telling papa (who is soaking in the tub) to come out and tell them more about their pony that, according to him swims to the bottom of the river to eat the onions that grow there.
The little girls grow up, their story-telling father continues telling fables but mostly to himself, while their mother keeps trying out new ways, and new lovers, in a mostly unsuccessful effort to keep herself interested in life. Their pets, including that errant pony, a tailless dog and a turtle, grow old and all but the turtle die, as do some of this family’s friends — lots of little events, and some bigger ones, occur over the 15-some “light years,” 1958 to about 1973, through which we observe a man and a woman, the parents of those little girls, from their home in rural New York, to their work and play in New York City, and then briefly (and separately) to Italy and Switzerland, before each — separately still — returns to the soggy land around that black river, its familiar buildings decayed and newer, unwelcoming ones thrown up as gaudy future ruins.
And that’s about it for the story. No one here is driven by any great, unforgiving ambition, but the man and woman and all their friends move mostly by inertia, nudged along at times by dreams and impulses, which are mostly disappointing when fulfilled. Still, the book is so beautifully written, the people are so believably individual, and the weather and texture and look of the sites so vivid, that it is a joy to read. The opening lines, about the river and the sea birds and its “dream of the past” are as entrancing as the opening lines of García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, but with this difference: the first lines of the latter book — the Colonel facing a firing squad and remembering his childhood — contain the hint of the whole complicated story. In Light Years, there almost is no story beyond the images of different moments in the slow and uncomprehending maturing, or simply aging, of a man and woman as they drift apart and with no common project.
Sebold, Alice. 2002. The Lovely Bones. Boston: Little, Brown. 328 p.
Like Our Town or a Spanish-language telenovela, or even Juan Rulfo’s famous Pedro Páramo, where the dead chatter to one another from their graves, gives glimpses of interrelated lives to reaffirm the consoling myths of community: good people can pull through any tragedy when they pull together, and everybody ultimately gets what she or he deserves. In this case, the point of view device is the ghost of a murdered teenage girl, who can observe her family, friends and murderer as they go about their lives. It’s a girl’s book, in the same sense that the book I read just previously, Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), is a boy’s book. That one was full of gunfighters on horseback and lots of man-to-man combat (Custer’s Last Stand); this has a cute little dog, sweet kids, astute and persistent young women, and a few pathetically sad men one of whom can’t keep himself from killing little girls. I found it sappy, but it’s a huge sales success, so there must be a lot of present or former teenage girls who love it. They would probably hate smelly, sweaty, and raucous Son. 021024
The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A 19-year-old Turkish Istanbuli girl oblivious to the past and nearly suffocated by her overdevoted relatives meets a 19-year-old Armenian-American girl obsessed by the past and nearly suffocated by her own over devoted relatives; the first discovers a past that has been suppressed, and the second learns to partially free herself from the past and savor the present.
This is an artfully constructed book with two contrary agendas, both essential, but not entirely comfortable with one another.
First, the literary agenda: The quirks, foibles and virtues of a large number of complex characters, understandable even when not exactly lovable, are described in rich and vivid, their personal dramas interwoven and mostly resolving in surprising and satisfying ways. The literary ambition is signaled in the opening chapter — the sounds and sensations of rush hour in Istanbul in a rainstorm, and the furious and impious thoughts of young Zeliha as she hurries through the broken streets to a critical appointment, are delightful, frightening and hilarious, and will be unforgettable. And then we meet the other badly split family of the Armenian American girl, and then back to Zeliha and her three sisters, each eccentric in a different way, and her mother and grandmother living in sweet but comical confusion.
But there is another agenda, political and didactic: Elif Shafak wants us to face a terrible tragedy — the killings and deportations of Armenians in 1915 — and to help all of us, but especially Armenians and Turks, to come to mutual comprehension and forgiveness today.
The contemporary Turks of the novel (and, I think, in reality) have no problem whatever with their Armenian compatriots. None of Zeliha’s friends thinks it remarkable that her lover, Arman, is Armenian; for them, “Armenian” is just another variety of Turk. But when Zeliha’s now 19-year-old daughter Asya introduces her new friend Amy — or Armanoush — to her friends in the bar as an Armenian American, they are suddenly on the alert.
“Now the word Armenian wouldn’t surprise anyone at Café Kundera, but Armenian American was a different story. Armenian Armenian was no problem — similar culture, similar problems — but Armenian American meant someone who despised the Turks.”
As Asya begins to tell the tragedy of Armanoush’s Istanbulite family, the execution of her great grandfather because he was an intellectual, one of the drinkers at the table blurts out, “That didn’t happen.”
The problem is that Armenians in the diaspora cannot forget their terrible history, while Turks cannot remember it or, if they have even thought about it, accept a version where both sides did awful things and nobody now is to blame — 1915 was a long before they were born, Turkey was a different country, and none of that has anything to do with them.
But Shafak insists that it does have to do with them, because until Turks recognize and acknowledge the pain of the Armenians they are in effect accomplices of a massive cover-up. But on the other side, would Armenians in the diaspora ever accept any reasonable concessions or admissions by the Turks?
When Armanoush gets Asya to take part in an on-line forum of Armenian Americans, one of them immediately demands that she as a Turk recognize the genocide. The young but well-read Asya writes back, “Genocide is a heavily loaded term… It implies a systematic, well-organized, and philosophized extermination. Honestly, I am not sure the Ottoman state at the time was of such a nature. But I do recognize the injustice that was done to the Armenians. I am not a historian. My knowledge is limited and tainted, but so is yours.”
And then she asks, “Tell me, what can I as an ordinary Turk in this day and age do to ease your pain?” And the Armenian Americans, never before confronted by such a question, have no plausible answer. Apologize, says one after a long pause. For something she had no part of? Get the Turkish state to apologize, demands another. But how could she get the Turkish state to do anything?
But then another Armenian American forum member joins in, one who calls himself “Baron Baghdassarian” and whom we have been taught to expect to be wiser than the others, and surprises everyone by typing:
“Well, the truth is… some among the Armenians in the diaspora would never want the Turks to recognize the genocide. If they do so, they’ll pull the rug out from under our feet and take the strongest bond that unites us. Just like the Turks have been in the habit of denying their wrongdoing, the Armenians have been in the habit of savoring the cocoon of victimhood. Apparently, there are some old habits tht need to be changed on both sides.”
And whether or not you believe that a real Armenian American might write that in an on-line forum, it is clearly the opinion of Elif Shafak.
The on-line forum allows Shafak to introduce political discourse by characters who have no existence beyond their cyber presence. And to describe events for which there is no human testimony, an ancient djinni who has been magically enslaved by Zeliha’s eldest sister, the clairvoyant Banu, gives his eye-witness account.
In this literary tale all the decisive actors (actresses) are women and the men, whether comical, sympathetic or pathetic, are necessary but secondary figures like Poins or Bardolph in Henry IV, useful for displaying some aspect of the more complex (and always female) protagonists. That for me was one of the pleasures of the book, allowing me to enter the consciousness of so many and such complex girls and women.
The blatantly political segments interrupt the flow of the other, literary story, sometimes jarring the reader’s willingness to believe. But they enable Shafak to describe that terrible history.
The book is charming, sometimes stunningly beautiful, often outrageously funny, sometimes deeply sad. And because of its political content, it is also a very brave book. Elif Shafak knew she was taking a major risk when she published the original version in Turkish, that she would offend powerful members of the state and risk imprisonment. And I imagine that her version of events will also greatly offend members of the Armenian diaspora, for the very reason “Baron Baghdassarian” expounded. And for all these reasons, it’s a book we need to read. 2011.8.31
The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak
My rating: 3 of 5 star
The encounter and transforming love between Rumi and the wandering dervish Shams i-Tabriz in the 1240s is background, context and explanation of the transformation in 2008 and 2009 of Ella Rubinstein, Jewish American housewife in Northampton MA, through contact with their story. Shams turns the respected and sedate scholar Rumi into a poet and co-founder (along with Shams) of the whirling dervishes; their story turns Ella from a self-repressed, resigned wife in a loveless marriage into a free and adventurous woman. Alternating chapters are told from the points of view of Ella or Shams and the many people who come in contact directly with him in Konya, Damascus or Tabriz. His stern but gentle manner and his preachings of love arouse strong reactions, ranging from murderous hostility on the part of Islamic zealots to almost total identification by Rumi, from respect and devotion by outcastes whom he has consoled and aided to the one kind of love he cannot allow himself, the passionate, carnal kind. Which may be what you thought this book was going to be about, but no, Shams’ “40 Rules of Love” are Sufi rules, of accepting one’s fate but aiding and preventing harm to others and trusting in God’s overall just design of all things. The book is a welcome introduction to this moment in Sufism and the origins of the Mahlevi whirling dervishes (“Mahlev” or master was what Rumi was called), and the twin stories — of the 13th and of the 21st centuries — come to a satisfying conclusion.
However, Shafak’s narrative structure and voice here are so limited that one longs for a little break now and then. Each chapter tells us the thoughts and observations of just one character at a time, often telling us things that they would be unlikely to say even to themselves, and everybody sounds alike, whether a drunk or a prostitute or enlightened one in Konya in 1246 or Ella Rubinstein in 2008. The drunk tells us he is drunk but he doesn’t sound drunk, the angry zealot tells us he is an angry zealot but doesn’t sound very excited about it, and so on. “”Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Shams kept saying.” (p. 268) He sounds just like Ella. These limitations are quite unlike Elif Shafak’s approach in her earlier novel, The Bastard of Istanbul (see my review), where there are different voices and narrative points of view, including a genie and an Internet forum. But “40 Rules” comes to a good, perfectly Sufi ending, which goes far to compensate for other weaknesses, and in the course of reading it we learn much about why Sufism is so appealing to so many.
Shaw, Irwin. 1973. God was here but He left early. New York: Arbor House.
The 3 longer pieces are comic fantasies, like Vonnegut but without the mad imagination. In “Whispers in Bedlam,” a not very bright professional football player who has never thought deeply about anything suddenly acquires the power to hear distant whispers and even unspoken thoughts — enabling him to acquire riches and fame (in business, poker, and football) but revealing a world of hypocrisy and deceit that so horrifies him that… Well, you can guess the rest. In “The Mannichon Solution,” a nebbish chemist working in the detergents department while dreaming of the Nobel Prize accidently discovers a solution that might make him rich and famous but that kills any organism with yellow pigment, and for which the only likely buyer is the C.I.A. (to drop into the Yangtze to solve the “yellow peril” problem). And “Small Saturday” links the efforts of a little bookseller to get a date with a bigger woman to the stories of each of the women he calls– clever, cute, but not very probing bouquet of anecdotes about the NYC singles scene circa 1967.
Of the shorter pieces, “Where all things wise and fair descend,” is mostly an opportunity for Shaw to quote some his favorite 19th century poetry, which contributes sweetly to the maturing of a nice, good-hearted college boy. Don’t bother, unless you want to read Shelley and don’t happen to have a copy of the original handy.
The title story is the best — though the cute title has almost nothing to do with it. A very believable, attractive, intelligent and divorced American professional woman is trying rather desperately to arrange an abortion in Europe. We never learn whether she succeeds or not, because what interests Shaw is how she develops and what she learns in her sometimes cagey, sometimes direct attempts to achieve something that Is Just Not Talked About.
Like the critics say, Shaw’s writing did sometimes remind me of Hemingway, especially in the title story, which is about the revelation of character rather than the closure of some action. But then, Hemingway’s famous story — “Hills like White Elephants” — is so much subtler that some readers don’t even recognize that it’s about the same subject.
Smith, Martin Cruz. Havana Bay. New York: Random House, 1999. 329 pp.
Arkady Renko goes to Havana to investigate murder of a Russian colleague & to kill himself, but when Cuban police try to kill him, he is re-energized, and with help of a small, feisty mulata policewoman, Ofelia Osorio, foils plot he doesn’t understand but involved yet another attempt on the life of Castro. Very vivid portrayal of life & its contradictions in contemporary Havana. 99/8/15
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. New York: Viking International, 2000. 448 pages.
Zadie Smith has great fun with accents and attitudes in this story of conflicting fanaticisms in multicultural London. Characters include: a middle-aged Koran-obsessed Bengali; his happily agnostic, slow-witted and good-hearted English army buddy; their much younger wives a black, patois-speaking Jamaican, a fugitive from Seventh Day Adventists eagerly awaiting the end of the world, and a short, practical Bangladeshi who can recite the Koran but doesn’t believe it; a scientist fanatical only about his research, and the teen-aged children of these three households, alternately obsessed by religion, drugs, science and each other. The anti-Rushdie hysteria and the burning of Satanic Verses (an episode in the novel) make a kind of sense in this confusion of motives and loyalties.
The novel falls apart only when the author tries too hard to bring it all together, in an utterly implausible rush of coincidences in the last couple of pages. But no matter. The other 446 pages are full of laughs, griefs and insights. 2002-7-23
Stendahl, (Marie Henri Beyle). The Charterhouse of Parma.
Translated by Richard Howard. Modern Library ed. New York: Random House, 1999. 507 pp.
The hero is a handsome, lucky fool, Fabrizio del Dongo, who gets into and out of scrapes due to a kind of calculated passion. That is, he makes grand gestures less because of true love or any particular political commitment, but because he’s concerned about what pose he should strike. His most memorable adventure and the best episode in the book is his uncomprehending participation in the battle of Waterloo, whither he has hied without any military experience or training or knowledge of French. This is a funny, poignant, and probably realistic depiction of the confusion of battle and the panicked disarray of the French soldiers and officers after their defeat.
There is also fun in some of Stendahl’s miscellaneous observations about love, politics and letters.
“And a man of your talents, Signor, must steal in order to live!” [says the Duchess (Fabrizio’s beautiful aunt) to the highwayman, who is also a famous poet.]
“That may be the reason I have any talent. Hitherto all our authors who have become well known were people paid by the government or by the religion they sought to undermine….” (p. 357)
Another insight (this time in the voice of the author himself):
I am inclined to think that the immoral delight Italians experience in taking revenge is a consequence of their power of imagination; people in other countries do not, strictly speaking, forgive; they forget. (p. 365)
Stendahl finally gets bored with Fabrizio and lets him die in a monastery, of love-sickness.
Stone, Robert (1977). A Flag for Sunrise. New York, Ballantine Books.
Stone is a very good conventional novelist, according to some very old conventions: pre-Hemingway, Faulkner or Dos Passos, inter alia. Vocabulary is excessive and too flowery for Hemingway, psychology too primitive for Faulkner, narrative too linear for Dos Passos. Plot stars Frank Holliwell, middle-aged, tall, athletic, an alcoholic with a sinister past with the CIA in Vietnam, married to an independent professional whom he appears to love and is now a professor anthropology in Delaware, also with mysterious past (CIA? anthropological? both?) in Central America. Holliwell is an implausible concoction, a mix of James Bond, Leamus & Walter Mitty (or Miniver Cheevy). Somehow they find themselves in a country like Nicaragua, where there’s a mystic, 60-ish alcoholic priest, and a bewitchingly innocent nun who — most implausibly — lets herself get fucked by the ridiculously incompetent Holliwell. Pablo Tabor, paranoid speed freak, is a delicious character — unreal as a whole, but with believable episodes. This is because his language (in speech and thought) is recognizable & authentic. Other characters (there are many) are much less successful. Politics: a pox on both your houses, but with more sympathy for the ever-doomed and ever-naive rebels against the tyrants who run this mythical country. (From ntbk 7/22/86 p. 174)
A Mind at Peace by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This lyrical evocation of Istanbul on the eve of the second world war is experienced through eyes, ears and mind of a young man especially sensitive to the terrible conflicts of its recent past, the city’s two-faced identity (looking toward Asia and toward Europe), the country’s economic backwardness, the beauty of the Bosphorus and of the homes, some splendid, some ruinous that border it, the sharp class divisions and the powerful ties of family. The young man is Mümtaz, orphaned in the war against the Greeks in 1923 and now, in 1939, 27 years old. Besides the city itself and its music, especially the traditional türküs and Ottoman classical music, the chief influences on him are his much older cousin İhsan, his professor and his guardian since his early ophanhood; Nuran, a beautiful divorcée with a lovely singing voice, two years older than Mümtaz, who was his fiancée in the previous summer but now has abandoned him and left him hopelessly forlorn; and Suad, another cousin, terribly smart, cynical, and tormented. Their conflicting passions and their doubts are a gigantic, complex metaphor for Turkey itself.
The translation is quite elegant, though the translator has a penchant for some unusual English words (“luculent” is a favorite) and resorts often to the Turkish words in the descriptions of boating on the Bosphorus and other passages. It is a moving and ambitious book, that can be appreciated by any reader but will be most fully appreciated by those famliar with the music that is evoked almost throughout.
Thornton, Lawrence. Imagining Argentina. New York: Doubleday, 1987.
In Imagining Argentina, Lawrence Thornton imagined as a protagonist a liberal minded, middle class Argentine as nice as Mr. Rogers (like Mr. Rogers, he works with children) whose wife is suddenly “disappeared” by military goons. The story evokes our empathy precisely because the protagonist, Carlos Rueda, is so much like the probable reader, and because the Argentina that Thornton imagines is also familiar — vaguely like small cities and farmland in the United States.
The bad guys, however, are completely opaque, their motives no clearer than those of the troll in “Billy Goat Gruff.” Thornton’s imagined place is not really Argentina at all, but the magical kingdom of fairy tales where spirit triumphs over fear by the appropriate gesture of an individual.
(Excerpted from Geoffrey Fox, “Mermaids and other Fetishes,” 1989)
Tyler, Ann. (2001). Back When We Were Grownups. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.
Clever, but what’s the point? The opening line tells the whole story: “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Like a lot of people. But since it was her own fault, why should we care? 020807
Treece, Henry. The Great Captains. 1980 ed. Manchester, UK: Savoy Books, Ltd., 1956.
The book is comically, absurdly bad. The main story tells of Artos the Bear, a Celtic tribal chieftain in 477 AD, who will become Arturius as Count of England and ultimately and way posthumously King Arthur of legend. This primitive tribal chief knows only two motivations: to fight (but we know not for what), and to love his flaxen-haired Gwenhwyfar (who will become known as Guinevere). The Gwenhwyfar impulse is not as strong as it appeared — he’s easily distracted by the improbable raven-haired beauty Lystra, whom he obliges to bleach her hair and rechristens Gwenhwyfar, so now there are two. So his love for G is hardly an overriding principle. The original G is, in true telenovela style, his sister (maybe his half-sister — I didn’t quite follow the rather oblique references). So if the love story doesn’t hold this story together, it has to be Artos’ campaigns to save Britain from the Saxons, Jutes, Angles and Picts in the wake of the withdrawal of the Roman legions. But this is a hopeless task from the outset, as hopeless as dreams of an ethnically pure Greater Serbia. Britain, Treece acknowledges, is already a great ethnic mix. One of Artos’ two most trusted “captains,” Cie (no hint as to how to pronounce this), is said to be a small, dark man of “Silurian” descent. There are Irish, who are always sandy-haired and fair-skinned. The Celts are generally dark-haired, except for Artos himself & his sister-lover, who appear to be as blond as the invaders, who are almost always “flaxen-haired.” The exception is one Saxon king whose mother was a Celt, for, as Treece mentions, there’s a lot of miscegenation going on, and the Celts as a whole don’t feel particularly chauvinistic. Artos’ own army is made up largely of Jutes toward the end. Artos’ nationalism is suspect also because he claims authority in the name of Rome, an empire and civilization that he doesn’t know but imagines as vastly superior to anything in Britain.
This may be fairly accurate as history — the confusion, the wars about nothing much at all except which male is going to dominate, the easy switching of loyalties even across dialect and language boundaries — and it might make for a good background for a story, but it is too diffuse & chaotic to be the story. Artos, in this portrayal, is just not a very interesting person. He doesn’t know what he wants, beyond being recognized as Count of Britain, and once he establishes himself as such, has no idea what to do next besides eat, drink and loll around on his throne while courtiers seek to amuse him. He’s a bore, not a bear.
The story just galumphs along, one little (or big) battle after another in which, usually, a hundred or more men we don’t know (because Treece has never bothered to introduce them to us) are said to have been killed. Then the galumphing is interrupted by a carefully set up dramatic scene, of which I can remember only two that seem to fully engage the author’s (if not the reader’s) attention. First is the dance of the corn men and antler men, a long set-piece in which the antlered men struggle with the white-painted corn (i.e., cereal, probably oats or barley) men,which sounds inspired half by Frasier’s Golden Bough (which Treece cites as a source) and half by accounts of American Indians. Still, something like that may have occurred in those ancient British tribes, which surely had some sort of fertility rite. (The whole thing is about making the new crop prosper.)
The second is the far more improbable bull v. girl dance. We are to believe that this savage chieftain Artos has ordered up the reconstruction of the old Roman amphitheater at Caerleon, itself improbable (and that artisans would be available who knew how to do it). Then, that he knew something about bull fighting (never before mentioned in the book, & not popularly associated with blue-painted Druid warriors). The dance of the near-naked Lystra to dodge the horns of the mighty bull, and her ultimate goring, must have been the erotic high-point for Treece.
The roundtable legend is reduced to an incident where Artos throws his round shield down into the mud and orders the kings of the west to gather around it, to make the point that nobody is in the head position. There is no hint of Lancelot in Treece’s story (at least, none that I perceived).
It’s not King Lear, which is also ancient Celtic mythology, but with great characters. The first notable character in this book is Ambrosius Aurelius, the last Roman Count of Britain (was that a real title?), who has flashes of impressive authority, but mainly just withers away until Medrodus (Mordred of the legends) murders him. He occupies the 1st 50 pp., then lingers on for a few more after Artos (Arthur) is introduced; he then disappears, and our attention is supposed to refocus on Artos. It’s like an American soap opera, you use up one main character & then another rises to carry on, and so on. No dramatic tension here. Britain will go on and on, whatever happens to Ambrosius, or Medrodus, or Artos, & with this one-thing-after-another structure, the story can only be about Britain, not about Artos (or any of the others). In contrast, King Lear is about Lear (& his daughters).
It should be a good book for an 11-year old, though — lots of sword & horseplay.
Vargas Llosa, Mario. La Fiesta del Chivo. Buenos Aires: Alfaguara, 2000. 518 pp.
What does terror look like? How does it feel, to use it or to be its victim? Mario Vargas Llosa has imagined these things so vividly that after reading this book you will think that you know. La Fiesta del Chivo is the most fully achieved novel yet in this author’s long campaign to bring real historical fact to breathing, pulsating, blood-gushing life. The Chivo (literally, “goat”) is Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, and the “fiesta” takes place in the last months before, and some five months following, his assassination in 1961.
Since La casa verde (1966), his second novel, Vargas Llosa has interwoven social research and fantasy, with much more rigorous research than most novelists could be bothered with. In La casa verde he relied for part of the story on what he’d learned as an anthropological research assistant in the Amazon. La historia de Mayta (1985) uses interviews and much documentary evidence to portray the real revolutionary left of Peru in the 1950s, in which he sets Mayta, a plausible composite invention.
Here, in La Fiesta del Chivo, he presents a highly detailed, blow-by-blow documentary of the real conspiracy to kill Trujillo, including incursions into the mind of the unsuspecting dictator “el Benefactor,” “el Jefe,” etc., as his terrified subjects call him. This is very exciting, tense writing, even if we know enough Dominican history to recognize all the characters and know what their fates will be. Masterfully, Vargas Llosa wraps this story in another, fictional one, of Urania Cabral and her father Agustín, at one time President of Trujillo’s senate and one of the Chivo’s most trusted collaborators. The mystery is why Urania fled the country in 1960 when she was just 14 1/2, and why after refusing any contact with her father for 31 years she has returned. The conclusion is as shocking as the scenes of torture and brutality taken from the archives or testimonies, as shocking, that is, as the historically documented episodes. But it is even more stunning because, while completely believable, it is a great and horrible surprise. 01/02/04. On the Dominican Republic, cf. Michele Wucker, Why the Cocks Fight, and for another novel on a similar theme, cf. Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies.
Vargas Llosa, Mario. Historia de Mayta. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1984.
Thu, 1997 Nov 27, 11:03 – As Vargas Llosa tells it in La historia secreta de una novela.(1983 ed. Barcelona: Tasquets, 1971) , La casa verde resulted from his attempts to weld together two unrelated novels that he was trying to write on alternate days. La tía Julia y el escribidor and Historia de Mayta must have similarly disconnected origins. The first is a joining of the story of Varguitas’ romance of his tía Julia, to a story about somebody MVLL knew, possibly in the same period, el escribidor of radionovelas. As I recall, neither is essential to the other, & the only connection is that the same young man, Varguitas, is a protagonist in one and an observer in the other.
Mayta is even curiouser in its structure. The author (MVLL’s narrators are almost always transparent versions of himself) seems to have conducted a real investigation into the history of a real revolutionary of the late 1950s. He presents his speculative findings (because the research in newpaper archives and interviews of survivors and witnesses leaves many questions still in dispute) through a multilayered veil of fiction. But even the first layer is not completely coherent. He presents himself as a novelist who wants to write a fictitious account of real events, and yet needs to know as exactly as possible what those real events were, as a way, he says – I don’t remember the phrases, because he offers this explanation several times to doubting interview prospects – to know how much he is lying. O.k., that may be questionable strategy, but not implausible. But then he presents himself as a former schoolmate of Mayta, and therefore of the same age. This age is never stated more precisely than “cuarentón” at the time of the crucial events, which must be 1958 – Fidel Castro is still in the mountains, shortly before entering Havana. The narrator’s quest takes place “now,” which seems to be 1983 — the book came out in 1984 – by which time, to follow the logic of the first premise, both he and Mayta would have to be at least 66. However, the conversations & reflections of the narrator,& his relationship to the people he interviews, seem to be those of a man no older than the real Vargas Llosa, born 1936. How do I know? Well, he doesn’t seem to have any personal memories of Perú prior to the events of 1958 – his description of school days with Mayta are generic, could be from any period – nor any acquaintance with any of his interviewees or their contexts that goes back even to that time. A second & more glaring inconsistency is the age of Mayta’s tía, 70 when the narrator interviews her. That is, she is barely, if at all, older than Mayta himself, but is supposed to have reared him.
Then there is the author’s strange decision to locate the events of 1983 in a fantastically apocalytic Perú, which has been invaded, most implausibly, by a combined Cuban and Bolivian revolutionary force and is then also invaded by U.S. Marines to combat the first invaders, leaving the Peruvian armed forces on the margin and causing great destruction from terrorist attacks and air-raids. Enough social violence was already occurring in Perú in 1983 to make this whole scene completely unnecessary, as well as ridiculously implausible. Worse, it is not fully imagined. We never meet or even see one of those “Marines” (everybody uses the English word) or terrucos, nor is there any attempt to explain how the Cuban-Bolivian revolutionary army could have been formed or how they can defend their bases in Bolivia from air or other attacks – it would be possible to make such a case, I suppose, but what would be the point?
In the course of the novel, MVL slides from one p.o.v. to another, beginning a sentence in the 3rd person, about Mayta, and ending in the 1st, as Mayta, or sometimes in the 1st as himself. The maneuver is tricky but generally successful, but there are places where it didn’t make sense. I don’t remember just what it was, but I think there are places where Mayta as “I” is saying things that the character could not possibly know.
Then at the end, MVL undoes his whole fiction, by claiming to have met the real prototype, who is now an ex-con and an employee in an ice cream parlor. He confesses to having invented the Perú apocalíptico for no good reason he can explain, and also to have invented – both to strengthen his fictional Mayta’s motivations and to explain how he became alienated from his political party on the eve of the revolutionary action – Mayta’s homosexuality. This is a very important theme in the development of the character of the fictional Mayta. However, it turns out to be not the case at all of the “real” Mayta, the one he claims to have found and interviewed after writing his whole novel. This “real” Mayta is perhaps more interesting than the fictional one, & although he claims not to be prejudiced, is surprised and a little disgusted by the attribution of homosexuality. He’s married with several kids, and knows homosexuals chiefly from having seen them depraved and exploited in Lurigancho prison.
It’s about fragmentation, about pulling many different threads and styles and premises together into one work and achieving coherence. Vargas Llosa, for all his brilliance, does not always pull it off. I was moved and amazed by Historia de Mayta, but also disappointed in it as an aesthetic construct. Come to think of it, La ciudad y los perros is also two stories attached to but not integrated into one another. Pantaleón y las visitadoras is the only one of his novels I can think of right now that is fully integrated and coherent, in the same way as GGM’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada.
In MVLL, I admire the technical virtuosity, in swift shifts of p.o.v., pacing of actions, and the pitiless descriptions, like lingering close-ups of garbage, or broken lives, or ruined apartments, etc. In Gabriel García Márquez I admire enormously the aesthetic integration he usually manages to achieve, starting from ideas and perceptions just as diverse as MVLL’s.
Vidal, Gore. Creation. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982.
A 600-page travelogue on a long-gone world. Cyrus Spitama, half-Greek, half-Persian grandson of Zoroaster, boyhood friend of Xerxes, journeys across the vast Persian Empire of the 5th c. BC and to India — where he marries a king’s daughter and converses with holy men of various persuasions, most memorably with Gautama Buddha himself — and thence on to Cathay (China), where he becomes the prized slave of an impoverished duke, listens to Lao-Tze, and comes to know the aged Confucius intimately (they go fishing together). Finally he manages to return to Persia, in time for Xerxes’ assassination and the ascension of his crippled son Artaxerxes, who sends him on as ambassador to Athens, where he hears Thucydides’ distorted pro-Greek version of the Persian wars, chats with the young Pericles, and dictates his memoirs to his grandson Democritus. Lots of action, even more philosophical discussion, but only sporadic, unsustained narrative tension — ideas, rather than characters, are Vidal’s main concerns here. Cyrus, one of the few purely fictional characters to appear, is seeking to solve the riddle of creation, a paradox for Zoroastrians, solved by reincarnation for Buddha, an event that never occurred for Lao-Tze, and an issue beyond human knowing and thus not worth exploring for Confucius. In an epilogue, Cyrus’ grandson Democritus sums up his famous solution to the problem — all is matter, made up of “atoms,” ceaselessly recombining to create new things. Fascinating as popular history of philosophy, but lacking the sustained, complex character development that Vidal achieves brilliantly in Burr. We get intriguing glimpses of Pericles, Xerxes and the others, but the only truly complex and fascinating characters are Atosa (Darius the Great’s wife and mother of Xerxes) and Confucius. 030819
Voltaire, “Candide ou l’optimisme,” dans Romans de Voltaire – présenté par Roger Peyrefitte, Livre de Poche. (Paris: Éditions Gallimard), 143-245
Le jeune allemand Candide découvre les cruautés du monde, en Europe, Amérique y Constantinople. Écrit vers 1759, le roman reflet le tremblement de terre à Lisbonne (1755), les légendes sur l’Amérique (“Eldorado” et les “moutons rouges” — llamas?), l’esclavage, les violents conflits religieux, et l’instabilité des monarchies de l’époque.
Walker, Barbara K., Ed. (1988). Turkish Folk-Tales. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
34 charming tales, selected from over 3,000 collected on audiotape by Barbara Walker and her husband in villages throughout Turkey, 1961-1987, and retold by BKW. 020807
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In his London bachelor quarters, a well-to-do amateur inventor and mechanics enthusiast astounds his friends with a tiny working model of what he describes as a time machine, which when a little lever is adjusted slightly, vanishes — into the future, according to the host. A week later, some of these same friends and others return for a second dinner, but when the host returns late, he looks haggard and his clothes are torn. He has, he tells them, journeyed on his machine (the full-sized model, like a stationary bicycle with special levers) far into the future — to 802,701 AD — when London no longer exists but in its place are strange ruins inhabited by a gentle, listless, indolent race of little people called the Eloi, who do no work and seem to make no special effort at all but are well-clothed and fed. He eventually discovers that underground lives another race of much more enterprising and savage little people, the Morlocks, who presumably manufacture the clothing and other necessities of the Eloi and ghost-like emerge at night to snatch some of them to carry back underground and cook and eat them. Such is the distant future of the division of London’s social classes, the ever more indolent and incapable aristocracy and upper bourgeoisie, and the ever more savage laboring poor on whom they come to depend. This is not the first time-travel fantasy (see Wikipedia Time Travel in Fiction) nor even the first to claim a mechanical conveyance, but is the one that has inspired more imitators. The characters are exceedingly simple, the dialogue is completely monotone and the physical descriptions are also very simple, but the one thing this little book has going for it is its stimulating concept, time travel.
Woolf, Virginia (1925). Mrs. Dalloway. New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
A mistresspiece of internal monologue. The reader gets to eavesdrop on the conversations that Clarissa Dalloway and her acquaintances imagine but dare not or know not how to speak. This is a subtler and wittier X-ray than Orwell’s of the anxieties of the lower middle, middle middle and upper middle classes, groping for a new normality after the trauma of the Great European War. Septimus Warren Smith, the war hero driven mad by that war, and his obtuse but self-assured doctors symbolize a whole eddy of misunderstandings, while Clarissa submerges her doubts by organizing a party where the guests make no gesture without calculating the impression they might create on others. I thank the makers of the movie “The Hours” for getting me to engage in this delicious read. 030312
Khirbet Khizeh, by S. Yizhar. London: Granta, 2008
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
We bought this book in Tel Aviv in January, 2013, just days after viewing the exhibit and film Alone on the Walls about the heroic but ultimately failed struggle of residents of Jerusalem’s “Jewish Quarter” against the assault by overwhelming forces of the Arab Legion and other Arab armies. A few dozen young men with small arms and lots of ingenuity, aided by women, children and the elderly, managed to hold off the siege for 150 days, from December 1947 to final surrender in May 1948. It is a powerful, moving story, documented by a photojournalist who, in disguise, accompanied the Jordanian troops and was able to get close to the attackers and, after the defeat, to the defeated.
But the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, like all wars, was morally complicated. This famous book by a prolific and highly respected Israeli novelist probes actions of Israeli forces that cannot inspire pride, and that help explain the deep pain and anger of Palestinians today.Published (in Hebrew) in 1949, just months after the events it describes, this was the first novel to (as the author himself described it years later) “[lay] bare the original sin of the State of Israel”: the forcible, violent expulsion, killing, and razing of the homes of Palestinian villagers whose ancestral lands happened to fall on the Israeli side of the 1948 partition — the expulsion that Palestinians remember as the Nakba or “Catastrophe.” Yizhar (Yizhar Smilansky) was a Sabra, born in Eretz Yisrael (in Rehovot) in 1916, 31 years before there was a state of Israel. He writes with an understanding of his Israeli character’s psychology from the inside, which makes his portrait of a young Israeli soldier on a mission of what we would now call “ethnic cleansing” sharply, shudderingly convincing. The IDF detail assigned to erase the village of Khirbet Khizeh in the 1948 war is supposed to believe that they are acting in self-defense, that the villagers are all potential terrorists. But as the day of shooting at and sometimes killing fleeing men, mindlessly slaughtering farm animals, terrorizing women, children and old men too infirm to run, and blowing up houses continues, with no sign of an enemy weapon or hostile reaction anywhere, the soldier wonders what in his God’s name he and his fellows are doing if not recreating the Jews’ own history of exile.
“All at once everything seemed to mean something different, more precisely exile. This was exile. This was what exile was like. This was what exile looked like . . .”
But the young soldier does not bring himself to resist an order, and he does not dare to appear soft or Arab-loving to his comrades, so ever more reluctantly he continues with his squad until the village and its lives are totally destroyed. But his shame continues to haunt him. The book was a best-seller in Israel when re-issued in 1964 and was for a time required reading in high schools. Its merit is not merely its denunciation of “the original sin” but also its exquisite description of landscape, people, sensations and the doubts of the young soldier. It reads brilliantly in this translation by Nicholas de Lange; it must be wonderful in Hebrew.
For another review, thoughtful and seemingly well-informed, see Jacqueline Rose’s “rereading” from the Guardian.