The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

December 7, 2010

I thought I had previously read one of Follett’s novels. I thought it was The Falcon and the Snowman, but that book was written by somebody else. Maybe I read The Eye of the Needle. I was in high school, decades ago now. It may be telling that I cannot recall enough of the book to determine to which book my wisps of recollection belong. Perhaps, after all, the book I remember was not Follett’s. If only I had blogged back then…..

There are many types of books in the world, but let’s pretend there are two. In one category, we have books that are a delight because “the characters are easy to love or hate”. In the other, are the books I tend to love. This book belongs in the former category. If not knowing within a page of meeting a character whether you should love that character or hate them is an irritating distraction for you, then this is your book. (The quote, by the way, is not from this novel, but a close paraphrase of someone’s description of a book they loved and which I did not. Our different reactions made sense to me after reading their reason for loving the book. Digressions are the hobgoblins of busy bloggers. I move on.)

Or, we can pretend the two categories are different. In one, a character who gets stabbed with a knife might “scream[] like a stuck pig.” In the other, are the books I tend to love. Perhaps, the prose is more pleasing if you have not actually heard a stuck pig. I think not, however. My real problem is that the sentence is, basically, “a stuck man screamed like a stuck pig” as getting “stuck”, in the pig context, is to be stabbed by a knife. The beauty of the symmetry is lost on me.

But those categories are so arbitrary. It is more helpful, perhaps, if I describe some of the novel’s good qualities. It is very long and, therefore, thick and, therefore, potentially useful for many things in addition to reading. It was a bestseller and, according to a BBC survey in 2003, is the 33rd most beloved book in Britain. Oprah likes it too. There are lots of characters to love and lots of characters to hate. Did I mention it is easy to tell them apart? So, there’s that.

At least one negative should be mentioned, to be fair. There is a sequel with the terrifying title World Without End. I think I said the novel is “very long.” The copy I have is 973 pages and a couple of months long.

While purportedly historical fiction, the novel is really a thriller which, coincidentally, is Follett’s forte. The prologue is set in England in 1123. There is a hanging attended by a knight, a monk, and a priest. The priest says to the knight….kidding. No, it is actually a gripping opening which ends with a headless cock running around “in a ragged circle on the bloodstained snow.” All the principal characters involved are later important. Follett knots his yarn well. If only he could write, that would be something. Well, if he could write and if trusted his readers a bit more, that would be something. His lack of trust in his readers shows in two ways. One, the characters are exceptionally very easy to categorize as “love them” or “hate them”, though, to make it more fun, you can try loving the hateful ones and hating the lovable ones. In that case, it has a tragic ending. The other way he does not trust his readers (or perhaps himself…and maybe he has a point) is that he often needs to explain things which really would be better shown.

I should expound upon the writing if I intend to be ungracious about it. Aside from stuck pigs, there are moments like this involving a starving family and an asshole:

”Suppose I give you money for food,” William said to the builder, to tantalize him.

“I’ll accept it gratefully,” the man said, although William could tell it hurt him to be subservient.

“I’m not talking about a gift. I’ll buy your woman.”

The woman herself spoke. “I’m not for sale, boy.”

Her scorn was well directed, and William was angered.

I shit you not.

If someone can tell me in the comments what that last sentence even means, I will be grateful. But look at the first sentence. We already know both (a) that the family is starving and (b) that William is an asshole. Shouldn’t the author be able to assume that his readers will know that an asshole offering money for food to a starving man is probably just being an asshole? But Follet tells us that William made the offer to “tantalize” the starving man, in case we missed it. In a much shorter book, maybe that would not become irritating, or maybe it would. It’s hard to tell.

I am being altogether too negative though. One of our young heros-to-be enjoys playing chess. You may know, I also enjoy playing chess. Of course, he “win[s] them all.” Perhaps, there is another way to show the boy is intelligent and that he enjoys chess. I am being unreasonable. If a character is going to play chess and be a hero, he ought to play well. Really well.

There is a nice structure to the novel. The 1123 prologue, as I mentioned, is fairly gripping. The main body of the story begins twelve years later with a fresh (so it seems) slate of characters. It may be a spoiler to say this, but any character worth loving or hating will appear more than once, often many times, often you will have least expected their reappearance a hundred or so pages before they do reappear, by which time you will have expected it. Somehow, it still is mildly satisfying. Like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when you are really jonesing for a steak and cheese. It gets the job done, but if the timing had been better….

I think it is my mood. The book is much better than I am making it out to be. However, I have managed to convey the novel’s basic type. I should add that, despite the shortcoming I have identified, Follet is a bestselling thriller-writer for a reason. There are loads of characters and you will definitely be able to find one of the type you might imagine yourself to be, particularly if you are a man. The good men are sometimes ugly. The good women, never. The good women are often raped. The good men, never. Perhaps there is a bit of misogyny, but not too much for Oprah.

If you have not visited any European cathedrals, which would be my position, you likely will want to after reading this book. Follett clearly enjoyed researching cathedrals and cathedral building for this book. The cathedral in the book is fictional rather than historical, as is the town and most of the characters. Historical events sort of play a role, but are altered to fit the plot. Most interesting is the way Follett has weaved an alternate history that begins with the sinking of the White Ship and, largely, ends with the murder of Thomas Becket. Follett has filled the space between these two events with a tale that spirals from the aspirations of Tom Builder to that final assasination. I cannot really say too much more about the success of the plot without spoiling the good thing about this novel which is the story. And, so, I won’t.

The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

July 15, 2009

Cynthia Ozick, like Bellow, is a new author for me. Thanks to the push of Kevin at KevinFromCanada and John Self at The Asylum, I picked up Ozick’s THE SHAWL. Consisting of a story and a novella, THE SHAWL takes on large subjects. Three characters are central to both the story and the novella: A mother, Rosa, her niece, Stella, and her daughter, Magda. The shawl of the title figures prominently in both the story and the novella.

TheShawlIn the story, “The Shawl”, Rosa is in her early twenties, Stella is fourteen, and Magda is a baby. They are in a concentration camp. The story is only eight pages long, but dense with emotion. If it were much longer, I think the reader might become numb. As it is, it is near perfect, if a story about something so horrifying can be said to be perfect. The story is much anthologized, including in “The Best American Short Stories of the Century” (which is a great collection of short stories if you are at all hesitant about investing solely in Ozick). For fear of spoiling it, my only further comment is that it is well worth the effort to find and read it.

In the novella, “Rosa”, Rosa is an old woman living alone in Florida in a broken down “hotel” (the quotes are hers). Her social life consists primarily of writing letters to Stella (in English) and to Magda (in Polish). Her connections to the broader world are tenuous at best.

Her routine of solitude is broken one day when she takes her filthy sheets and clothes to the laundromat. There she meets Simon Persky, an old Jew who also happens to be from Warsaw. He left in 1920. Through Rosa’s interaction with Persky and another old man she meets who did not experience the Holocaust, Ozick explores the attitudes of “survivors”, a term Rosa finds dehumanizing, toward fellow Jews who were not there.

Persky, whether through lust, romanticism, benevolence, or boredom, spends the novella trying to entice Rosa to go on a date with him. He is an interesting character, though he remained something of a mystery to me. Perhaps, I have too little familiarity with elderly ex-New Yorkers living in Florida. I could not decide whether he was benevolent, benign, or threatening. Certainly he is threatening to Rosa’s cocooned existence. There are hints of the sinister or pathetic, but no damning evidence.

The true focus is Rosa. The letters constitute a large portion of the sixty page novella. After one letter, she muses on the writing process:

“What a curiosity it was to hold a pen – nothing but a small pointed stick, after all, oozing its hieroglyphic puddles: a pen that speaks, miraculously, Polish. A lock removed from the tongue. Otherwise the tongue is chained to the teeth and the palate. An immersion into the living language: all at once this cleanliness, this capacity, this power to make a history, to tell, to explain. To retrieve, to reprieve!

“To lie.”

Rosa does lie. She lives mostly in the past, unable to escape the horrors of the Holocaust. And, to the extent she does get away, her mind goes mostly to pre-war Warsaw. She oft reminds Persky and herself that “[her] Warsaw isn’t [his] Warsaw.” In the Warsaw she remembers, her father and mother were somebody. They were not ordinary Jews, but true Poles. Her mother wanted to convert to Catholicism, people bowed to her. Her father was important.

Rosa carries horrible memories of the Holocaust, certainly, but part of what she laments is her loss of status. Due to the evils perpetrated by the Nazis, she went from somebody to nobody. First her family was stripped of its privilege, then they all were stripped of their humanity. Rosa feels she has never been able to regain, in the eyes of the world, her humanity.

This theme is repeated throughout the novella, as with her indignation at being labeled “refugee” or “survivor”. Barbed wire she encounters in America is likewise a reminder that she is less than, that others, even other Jews, consider her to be “riff raff” to be kept separate and apart. But her characterizations are not the only possible ones, as Persky reminds her.

Her tragedy, in the novella, is that she believes she cannot retrieve her past status as a full, complete human being. Who can argue? So she retreats to an alternate present, where she yearns for the past. She is a sympathetic character, but a frustrating one as well. I wanted her, as Persky urges, to forget a little, even though I know this probably asks too much. I want her to have her reprieve.