The Lights of Earth by Gina Berriault

August 4, 2010

For an excellent review of this work, I will send you to Kevin from Canada who recently read this book at my suggestion. I am just going to try to jot down some random thoughts about the book and, likely, will throw in some spoilers. Beware.

Last year, I had re-read two of Berriault’s novels (Afterwards and The Son) and commented on them. This year, I had planned to re-read this one too, but not quite so soon as I actually did. Reading Turn, Magic Wheel prompted me to take this down from the shelves to look for points of comparison, to remind myself of the story and the writing. Once I started, I did not want to stop.

The compulsion to finish was partly because I love Berriault’s writing and partly because I was astounded by the close parallels between this book and Powell’s. Both center on the women in a famous writer’s life. Powell borrows from the life of Hemingway, while Berriault’s famous writer (Martin) is more amorphous, just a place holder in many ways. Powell’s female lead is the ex-wife of the famous writer, while Berriault’s female lead is a soon-to-be ex-mistress. Powell’s book is broader in scope, rounding out a whole cast of characters, where Berriault focuses more intensely on the ex-mistress. The female leads’ male friends play central roles, particularly in the novels’ climaxes and denouements.

In a particularly poignant moment in Turn, Magic Wheel, Effie wishes she had had a child with Callingham, something that was hers alone. Effie watches a crippled boy from her window, imagining the sorrowful pride his mother must have when the teacher tells her the boy is slow. The mother doesn’t tell the teacher that her boy will shine one day, but because of the beautiful pictures he draws, his mother knows. The relationship between the mother and the boy is wrending, as is Effie’s yearning to have a child, even a crippled child.

Berriault gives her female lead, Ilona, a daughter to whom she does not seem close. Ilona also has a brother, Albert. Albert has some developmental disabilities and, thus, is confined to menial labor and a rather spartan existence. Ilona grew up watching out for him and, during the course of this novel, he sends Ilona a letter telling of a recent illness and a friend’s kind treatment:

Although he was happy to be tended by a friend out in the world, wasn’t it true that his sister ought to be the one tending him, just as she had protected him from what the world might do to him, the years when she had walked beside him and sat beside him on trolleys and buses, her small presence never enough to keep his fear from breaking out as a cold sweat over his face, never enough to convince him he was not at the world’s mercy.

Ilona’s longing for Martin is paralled by Albert’s brotherly longing for Ilona. She has gone out into the world and has not returned, will not return. Though he hopes so. Just as Ilona reminisces and fondles photographs of the man she loves but who has left her, Albert piteously misses his sister. When she later goes to Chicago, after he has died, she sees the room he rents, his keepsakes, and the prominent proof of his longing for her, a carboard sign posted above his cot which gives his address and a heartbreaking request that his sister be notified in an emergency. One senses it was always a bit of an emergency, that poor Albert was always in need of a sustaining phone call. He rarely received them, however.

The irony to this is that Ilona was Albert’s light and she left him. She was the distant star, the one traveling the world, the one who left him behind in the dark.

This sideline about Ilona’s brother is only one aspect of this novella. Every aspect of the work explores and amplifies the sense of longing, the feeling that one is being left while another streaks through life. Berriault has sympathy for those left behind and hopefulness too. Cynthia Ozick has written that “Berriault’s fictions never disappoint: they read like fact and leave the impress of wisdom.” The Lights of Earth certainly does not disappoint. It manages both a clenching sadness and an uplifting redemption without falling into sentimentality.

I loved it. I loved it again.


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

July 27, 2010

I now have the feeling you get after seeing a small mountain peak, making up your mind to climb it, and then looking out from it onto the valley from whence you came. It is not that Cloud Atlas is difficult to read or to enjoy. In fact, I was kidnapped by the story and soon developed Stockholm Syndrome. No, the feeling comes from having set out a plan to read Mitchell’s first three works in order and finishing them. The trek was delightful and I am sorry I will never feel the joy of discovering Mitchell’s genius in quite the same way. But, what a view.

Mitchell’s writing is connected by ideas more than by style or setting. In each of his first three books, randomness and chance play a large role, though perhaps less in this last one. Individual dislocation is another common theme. The role of storytellers is prominent throughout each of the works. Finally, Mitchell grapples in each with power imbalances and oppression, especially the struggle of individuals against the tyranny of organized groups. What I love about Mitchell is not only that he explores so many ideas and has interesting things to say about each of them, but that he ties the ideas together so artfully.

Mitchell is a writer who not only manages to produce a book that argues a coherent thesis, but has put together a body of work that fits together nicely so that the works together enrich and expand on the ideas put forward separately in each book. I think Cloud Atlas can be best and most easily appreciated in light of the earlier two works. They give context and background, not to the characters, but to the ideas Mitchell explores with such brilliance in his master work.

Cloud Atlas, if you do not know, is comprised of multiple storylines which are only lightly connected by character or plot. The story begins as a historical piece set, largely, on a ship sailing the Pacific in the 1800s, moves to a music-filled Chateau in the 1930s, turns into a 1970s mystery, then a modern (1990s/2000s) story about a smalltime con artist and publisher running from thugs, switches gears to an interview with Sonmi-451 (a genetically-engineered fastfood waitress, somewhat in the future), reverses to a nicely dystopian-future-based bildungsroman set far in the future, and back through each until the loop is closed in a most satisfying way. The arc of the story is genius.

The tying together of multiple, nearly independent, storylines reminds of Ghostwritten as both works present a nifty puzzle for the reader to enjoy while living the stories. I pointed out in my review of Ghostwritten how Mitchell carefully constructs these puzzles and, simultaneously, manages disparate plotlines that seem like they should be unwieldy. Mitchell, though keeps them tamed and relevant. He is a masterful storyteller, who tells stories with a purpose. Each character says and acts precisely as Mitchell wants them to speak and act, yet they live, wonderfully.

While all this storytelling and mastery of character and plot are going on, Mitchell gives us some brilliant prose too. Adam Ewing, seafarer of the 1800s, writes in his diary:

[T]he mind abhors a vacancy & is wont to people it with phantoms, thus I glimpsed first a tusked hog charging, then a Maori warrior, spear held aloft, his face inscribed with the ancestral hatred of his race.

‘Twas but a mollyhawk, wings “flupping” the air like a windjammer.

The allusion to Spinoza’s “nature abhors a vacuum” is both appropriate to the time and character and beautiful to the ear. “Flupping…like a windjammer” is lovely and, again, a gifted mimicry of a diarist of a century or two ago.

As the quote demonstrates, Ewing has the racial hangups of his time. Those are tested when he leaves, as a passenger on a ship, the island on which the story begins. On sailing, Adam Ewing believes he has left the Maori and their outfought rivals, the Moriori, but one of the latter has stowed away in Ewing’s cabin. The Moriori implores Ewing to either save him by pleading with the captain of the ship or to kill him with an offered knife. The Moriori, named Autua, does not want to be turned over to the captain whom he fears will torture him. One of Ewing’s friends, Mr. D’Arnoq, helped Autua hide aboard the ship and now Ewing must make a choice.

Cursing my conscience singly, my fortune doubly & Mr. D’Arnoq trebly, I bade him sheath his knife & for Heaven’s sake conceal himself lest one of the crew hear and come knocking. I promised to approach the captain at breakfast, for to interrupt his slumbers would only ensure the doom of the enterprise. This satisfied the stowaway & he thanked me. He slid back inside the coils of rope, leaving me to the near-impossible task of constructing a case for an Aboriginal stowaway, aboard an English schooner, without attaining his discoverer & cabinmate with a charge of conspiracy. The savage’s breathing told me he was sleeping. I was tempted to make a dash for the door & howl for help, but in the eyes of God my word was my bond, even to an Indian.

Ewing has more to deal with than just the stowaway. He also suffers from mysterious headaches. A fellow traveler, Dr. Henry Goose, promised, before they set sail, “to turn his formidable talents to the diagnosis of [Ewing’s] Ailment as soon as we are at sea.” The diagnosis is unpleasant. Dr. Goose informs Ewing that he has been infected by a parasitic worm that travels to the brain, lays larvae, and, when the larvae hatch, kill the victim. Ewing is relieved that Dr. Goose is one of the few who could have managed the diagnosis and has the potion which may destroy the parasites. Unfortunately, Dr. Goose tells Ewing, the treatment is a balancing act between killing and curing the patient.

The story is quite good. But if not to your taste, it trails off, mid-sentence, at page 39. From there, we meet an arrogant young musical prodigy who has alienated his wealthy father and gets by on high charm and low morals. The prodigy stumbles upon the journal in an old chateau while working for a syphilitic and renowned composer. This section is also very good, but lasts only a bit longer before also leaving the reader happily unsatisfied.

Each story is stopped in the middle, sometimes with tension, other times it just seems to fade. In all cases, the reader is left with a yearning to know what happens to the characters, but has little time to lament, because the stories are each more urgently engaging than the last.

Every section has a voice entirely different from what has gone before. I have quoted from the diary of the 19th century gentleman. “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is told in the present tense voice of the hard-boiled detective novel. Later, Sonmi-451 (Bradbury, anyone?) responds to an interview question by an Archivist:

To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our differences, you believe we have none. But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snowflakes.

The effect is remarkable. I tend to have a book on the nightstand and one I bring with me during the day. Cloud Atlas can be a bit like having four or five novels going at once. And, yet, somehow much easier than that. The cast of characters is never burdensomely large and the sections, even when completed, are barely novellas. They are all tied together by common themes and connections between characters. For instance, the two longer quotes I have provided both relate to slaves, subjugation, and the power of society over the individual. A peculiar birthmark recurs throughout. Mitchell is like a master cutter with a diamond. This gem of a book sparkles in ways I have not seen before, in ways I did not know a book could shine. It is a classic.

But I do not want to scare anyone away. The wonderful discovery for me was that, despite its intimidating reputation, Cloud Atlas is not difficult to read. It is not the struggle that, say, Crime and Punishment, in all its greatness, can be. While I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Mitchell’s first three novels in the order of publication, it certainly is not necessary. It may be the best way to read Cloud Atlas, as I would like to think. My suspicion, however, is that the most enjoyable way to read Cloud Atlas is to read it. Mitchell demonstrates that brilliant need not be difficult, at least in the reading. Writing about it or fully understanding all of Mitchell’s literary tricks, philosophical points, and cultural references, these things could take a career. But enjoying the book: you don’t even have to try.


City of Glass (The New York Trilogy, Volume 1) by Paul Auster

July 19, 2010

I had been intending to read Paul Auster for some time when Sasha, in the comments to my review of What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, Auter’s wife, suggested several of us read The New York Trilogy at the same time. I thought it was a great idea and, so, have started with City of Glass. I will be picking up the second in the trilogy, Ghosts, from the library within the next couple days. It is getting on two weeks since I fiished it and since Sasha posted her reaction.

The book began by promising me it would be one of my favorites, at least of the year. It ended leaving me confused and wondering whether I had been taken advantage of.

Much later, when he was able to think about things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance.

My understanding is that Paul Auster has an continuing interest in this idea of chance. Another of his novels is, after all, named The Music of Chance. Sarah, of A Rat in the Book Pile, reviewed that one and was, in a sense, my first introduction to Auster. With that review and this first of The New York Trilogy, I am certain I have too little to say or add to a conversation about Auster.

That theme of chance definitely suffuses his work. Sarah used this quote from The Music of Chance regarding a character’s choice of ramps on a highway:

It was a sudden, unpremeditated decision, but in the brief time that elapsed between the two ramps, Nashe understood that there was no difference, that both ramps were finally the same.

In City of Glass, the ostensible protagonist, Daniel Quinn, has been hired to keep Peter Stillman the son safe from Peter Stillman the father. His plan is to intercept Stillman the elder at the train station. He has an outdated picture of the man and knows on which train the man will arrive. Of course, two candidates show up and Quinn, on impulse, chooses to follow the poor and broken one rather than the wealthy and assured one.

There was no way to know: not this, not anything.

These two scenes are strikingly similar. In both, the character is faced with a split-second choice. In both, the character decides the choice makes little difference.

And, finally, that is my impression of the book. There are multiple available interpretations of the storyline, who is real, who is not, what happens, what does not. I do not have the tools I should to achieve any depth in this analysis because I have not read Don Quixote. This book relies heavily on Don Quixote. To the extent I am supposed to say whether you should read this work or not: You should. The exegesis on Don Quixote is worth the trouble to find and read the book. Quinn and Stillman have a conversation about Don Quixote and Cervantes. They discuss how Cervantes “goes to great lengths to convince the reader that he is not the author” of Don Quixote when, in fact, close examination of the novel demonstrates he must be. Part of Cervantes’s scheme is to insist that everything in the book really happened, when, really, it is a work of imagination that is “an attack on the dangers of make-believe.”

Paul Auster does a very similar thing in this work. Late in the book, our narrator tells us:

Since this story is based entirely on facts, the author feels it his duty not to overstep the bounds of the verifiable, to resist at all costs the perils of invention.

The parallel is not a result of my imagining. Quinn/Auster makes the connection explicitly. Daniel Quinn shares initials with Don Quixote.

He picked up his pen and wrote his initials, D.Q. (for Daniel Quinn), on the first page. It was the first time in more than five years that he had put his own name in one of his notebooks. He stopped to consider this fact for a moment but then dismissed it as irrelevant.

Yet, this novel is presented in the form of a mystery and the astute reader will have noticed Quinn’s earlier observation:

In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant.

For the less astute, Quinn makes the connection explicitly shortly after putting his initials in the notebook.

This comparatively slight book is packed with ideas. In addition to the rabbit-hole of reality vs. unreality, fate vs. chance, and chance as fate, there is the theme of doubling. Siri Hustvedt, in What I Loved, gave us the artist Bill Wechsler who was preoccupied with self-portraits, doubling, and ambiguity. Bill even says: “In my work, I want to create doubt. Because that’s what we’re sure of.”

Bill is Paul who is Quinn who is William Wilson and Don Quixote and Cervantes and Paul Auster.

He had, of course, long ago stopped thinking of himself as real.

Yes, and I did too. And, again, my central problem with this novel is that there is too much. I am not up to the task. I have to read more. There is a map of Daniel Quinn’s wanderings that I need to sketch. I will read it again. It is entertaining. It is amusing.

And that’s finally all anyone wants out of a book – to be amused.

P.S. Many, many thanks to Sasha for reading it at the same time, making me feel less alone in my confusion, and for posting first. I am sorry I have not been much help with the confuzzlement (nice word), but I can give you the condolence that I am terribly confuzzled too.

[Fixed a broken link and corrected a “the” to “they”. 19-Jul-2010]


The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad

July 15, 2010

This is only the second book by Joseph Conrad that I have read. The other was the novella Heart of Darkness and that was close to twenty years ago in university. I only have a vague recollection of my reaction to Heart of Darkness and, I am quite certain, my reaction now would be entirely different. As a practical matter, Conrad was a new author to me.

The Secret Agent is a deceptively simple tale. I kept expecting a bigger twist than ever occurred. The key events of the book are well set up, nicely foreshadowed, and brought off with a sure hand. The simplicity of the tale provides stark relief to the complexity and the horror of Conrad’s subject. With a little research, I discovered (after reading it) that it has been reported as being the most widely cited novel in the period just following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was a huge fan and identified strongly with one of the characters. The events of the novel revolve around the planning and aftermath of the bombing of an English landmark, the Greenwich Observatory.

There was an actual attempt to bomb the Greenwich Observatory in 1894, only a little over a decade before this book was published. Conrad explained in his author’s note that the genesis of this novel was a conversation he had with a friend (apparently Ford Madox Ford) regarding that bombing.

[W]e recalled the…story of the attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory; a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought…..[My friend] then remarked in his characteristically casual and omniscient manner: “Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards.”

From that simple remark by his friend, Conrad developed a story that explained the bombing as the inane result of defectively logical processes on the part of a cast of characters, from high-ranking officials to a backwards boy. His story has definite and bold political facets. He portrays politicians as morally vapid, the police as either ineffectual or corrupt, upper class socialites as powerful but dangerously naïve, and organized anarchists as inert speechmakers. It is hard to think of anyone who is portrayed in a positive light. Stevie, the dull-witted boy, has the best heart of the lot, but that gets him no farther than you would expect it to get a compassionate but slow young man.

The book is connected with 9/11 and likely gained the attention of Kaczynski for speeches like this one, by the anarchist, Karl Yundt:

”I have always dreamed,” he mouthed fiercely, “of a band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of destroyers, and free from the taint of that resigned pessimism which rots the world. No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity – that’s what I would have liked to see.”

The character that steals the show, at least with respect to terrorism, is the Professor. He is a small, intelligent, unsightly man. He grew up in a strictly religious home with a strong belief in morality and in the right of the talented to succeed. Life has proven the world otherwise. A lesser or perhaps better man would have reacted differently, perhaps.

The Professor had genius, but lacked the great social virtue of resignation.

He is the most ominous of the players in this drama. Conrad plays this character masterfully. It may be true that:

[I]n their own way the most ardent of revolutionaries are perhaps doing no more but seeking for peace in common with the rest of mankind – the peace of soothed vanity, of satisfied appetites, or perhaps of appeased conscience.

According to this line of thought, most “revolutionaries” are simply misfits. They never made it into the enviable cliques, so they rebelled. Undoubtedly, this explains the appeal of radicalism for some. Maybe even all. But even if that is the motivation, the individual can still be dangerous. Most are not. Most talk the game, but do not play it.

The Professor is different. His bruised ego has made him truly reactionary. He walks about fingering the trigger of a bomb he wears. He is dangerous. This keeps him safe, as he explains:

”In the last instance, it is character alone that makes for one’s safety. There are very few people in the world whose character is as well established as mine…..I have the means to make myself deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people have in my will to use the means. That’s their impression. It is absolute. Therefore, I am deadly.”

His role in events is both more powerful and less obvious than the reader initially expects. Conrad is rightly renowned as a storyteller and as a writer.

Another aspect, which goes to craft more than anything, is Conrad’s subtle play with time. He does not tell the story in a strictly chronological fashion. Instead, he alternates timelines. The story begins at the beginning, more or less, and proceeds. Soon, however, Conrad begins switching between events before the bombing and events after. The shifts are not abrupt, nor signalled by any especially obvious markers. However, this braiding together of before and after allows the climax to be the revelation of the identity of the bomber. It is a softly understated detail that elevates the novel above a simple mystery or thriller. I find it hard to express exactly how and why this timeshifting is so critical, but it is. In some ways, it feels like two storylines racing to the climax from opposite directions. The reader can see the crash coming well before the crescendo, but it is all the more powerful as a result.


The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

June 28, 2010

I read this book before reading Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. I am only writing this review now because I had not been entirely what to say on finishing The Good Soldier. It is an outstanding work full of memorable quotes, intense scenes, and engaging characters. I hesitated to write anything, then ended up reading What I Loved which contains so many parallels to this work that I lost confidence that I could separate my appreciation of the two works.

The two books involve entangled families in which the story is related by a male protagonist trying to make sense of what went wrong in the families’ intertwined histories. The non-narrating male lead is a charismatic good guy who, nonetheless, remains emotionally remote from, if not everyone, at least the reader. The narrator seems more able to relate the emotions and significance of his counterpart’s wife than his own. And both involve psychological intrigue of a darkly disquieting nature.

Other than these points of contact, however, the novels are completely different. Well, nearly so.

John Dowell is the narrator of The Good Soldier and tells us early why he is telling this story:

You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unkown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; of, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.

The tragedy is the dissolution of the small coterie made up of the two couples and the lesser satellites they trap into orbit. Almost immediately in his narratirion, John tells us that there will be no unscathed survivors. Everyone is either dead, insane, or irrevocably broken. As for John, he tells us:

I know nothing – nothing in the world – of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone – horribly alone. No hearthstone will ever again witness, for me, friendly intercourse. No smoking-room will ever be other than peopled with incalculable simulacra amidst smoke wreaths.

And John is the one that gets off somewhat easy. Three others are dead.

The whos, hows, and whys of the trio of deaths leads the reader into a labyrinthian social circle from which there is no safe escape. Captain Edward Ashburnan, the “good soldier” of the title, provides the central gravitational pull of the group.

Good God, what did they all see in him? For I swear [his regally charming appearance and abundant carrying cases] was all there was of him, inside and out; though they said he was a good soldier….How could he arouse anything like a sentiment in anybody?

…Ah, well, suddenly, as if by a flash of inspiration, I know. For all good soldiers are sentimentalists – all good soldiers are of that type. Their profession, for one thing, is full of the big words, courage, loyalty, honour, constancy…..He would say how much the society of a good woman could do towards redeeming you, and he would say that constancy was the finest of the virtues. He said it very stiffly, of course, but still as if the statement admitted of no doubt.

What John Dowell does not see, the reader can see almost immediately. Captain Edward Ashburnham has a suave bearing and an understated instensity that women adore. Once they have fallen and Edward has caught them, he is loathe to let them go. This sort of fidelity is, of course, immensely attractive to the opposite sex. And, as if to retain his mistresses’ hearts with secure permanence, Edward worships his wife.

John is a somewhat dull and impotent character who does not understand why Edward is so compelling as he, John, remains a steadfast friend even after Edward’s death and the revelation of painful truths. In circumstances which will make the average reader cringe with revulsion at Edward’s conduct, John gives him a pass. Edward is that kind of man, he has that sort of effect. And, in the end, he may have that effect on the reader too.

The alternatives to Edward are John, in his drab guilelessness, the conniving and disgusting Jimmy, or solitude. Edward is a respectable man, a man to emulate, to envy. The others are only to be pitied. Of course, John does not realize this. He gropes through life unable to decipher the quiet maneuverings of man. His naivete is the tool through which Ford promotes the central theme of the novel, which, if it is not the ephemeral quality of truth, is the duplicity inherent in civilization.

Through a narrator who is constantly having to revise his understanding of the world and the people around him, Ford demonstrates the contingency of knowledge. By the time the story is finished, as John tells us early on, other people begin to appear to John as “incalculable simulacra among smoke wreaths.” The theme is driven home with beautiful language and an intricate plot, much as in Hustvedt’s What I Loved. The strength of this work relative to What I Loved is that The Good Soldier relies on a naively trusting narrator observing more worldly wise companions to demonstrate the fragility of truth. Hustvedt’s relies on an pathologically deceptive character for similar purpose. Thus, The Good Soldier is more powerful in demonstrating that ordinary social intercourse undermines the childlike view that appearance is reality, whereas What I Loved relies on the extraordinary to do the same.

This is not to say that What I Loved does not have its strengths as well, but I believe this review has helped me determine what it is about What I Loved that did not quite work for me. Or maybe it did work, but I took less pleasure in it. In important ways, the works are not similar, but opposites.

But finally, what I have to say is this: If you have read and enjoyed The Good Soldier, you should pick up What I Loved for a delightful comparison. If you have read and enjoyed What I Loved, or if you have not, but have yet to read The Good Soldier, I highly recommend you do. This book is a classic for a reason.


The Twelve Chairs by Ilf & Petrov

June 18, 2010

Several years ago, I took a trip to Ukraine and, along the way, met a young veterinarian, Misha. We struck up a friendship and exchanged e-mail addresses. We e-mailed sporadically, sometimes in a flurry and sometimes a month or more would pass between messages. After a particularly long pause, Misha sent an e-mail indicating that he had arrived in the United States. I had not known he had any definite plans to come. He had found a job in the United States and had moved to within an hour’s drive of my childhood hometown (where most of my immediate family still live). It was quite a pleasant coincidence, because now I can see him fairly regularly and I have had the opportunity to show him where I grew up.

On one of my visits, we discussed literature (my Ukrainian is actually very, very poor Russian, but his English is good). We talked about Bulgakov, Nabokov, and some other authors. I asked Misha for a book recommendation. He suggested “The Twelve Chairs” by Ilya Ilf Fainzilberg (Ilya Ilf) and Evgeny Petrovich Kataev (Evgeny Petrov). He told me it was extremely funny, that I would certainly enjoy it. I promptly ordered it.

When I showed it to him (before I had read it), he looked at the back. The very first line of the publisher’s description is:

Ostap Bender is an unemployed con artist living by his wits in postrevolutionary Soviet Russia.

Misha gave a small snort of derision. Ostap Bender is an unemployed con artist living by his wits in postrevolutionary Soviet Ukraine, you see. Ukrainians dislike their country being called “The Ukraine” (instead of the accurate “Ukraine”) and they also dislike being confused with Russia. The Soviet Union was made up of fifteen Soviet republics, one of which was the Russian SFSR and another of which was the Ukrainian SSR. Westerners, in my experience, have tended to make little to no distinction between the Soviet Union and Russia, which is as baffling as it is annoying to Ukrainians (and, I presume, citizens of other former Soviet states). Anyway, American publishers (Northwestern University Press, in this case) are writing for Americans and, unfortunately, gloss over distinctions of Soviet geography that are on a Texas/Oklahoma scale.

But what a book. Northwestern University Press published The Twelve Chairs as part of their “European Classics” series. The series itself is outstanding. The entire thing is on my wish list, both the known and the (to me) obscure. However, I can wholeheartedly recommend this one as an entry point.

As The Twelve Chairs begins, Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov is going through an ordinary day in the “regional center of N.” “Life in N. was extremely quiet.” Ippolit lives unhappily with his mother-in-law, Claudia Ivanovna. Before the revolution, Ippolit and Claudia were wealthy aristocrats. She rues her relative downfall in life and how poorly her son-in-law turned out. In the opening pages, she has a dream of ill portent. Ippolit waves it off as the superstition of an old woman. He carries on as usual.

Unless I begin quoting liberally, I cannot convey the humor of this first chapter in which the proprietors of the rival funeral homes “Do Us the Honor” and the “Nymph” play an amusing role and Ippolit goes to his job as the clerk in charge of registering births, marriages, and deaths. Trust me, the skewering of Soviet life is delicious and translates perfectly well. We (in America) do have the DMV, after all.

Claudia Ivanovna has an attack of some sort, prompting Ippolit Matveyevich to dutifully rush to her bedside. He is rewarded when Claudia tells him a secret she has been keeping. Before her property was confiscated by the state, she sewed her family jewels into the seat of one of Ippolit’s twelve dining room chairs. She did not have time to retrieve them before they had to flee and Ippolit’s chairs were taken as well. Ippolit spends the remainder of the novel trying to find the chair with the jewels sewn into it.

His task is complicated at every step. To begin, Claudia also made a deathbed confession to Father Fyodor Vostrikov in which she disclosed the story of the jewels in the chair. Father Fyodor sees his opportunity to finally realize his “cherished…dream of possessing his own candle factory.” He only went into the priesthood to avoid conscription and, so, still covets material things. He is “tormented by the vision of thick ropes of wax being wound onto the factory drums.” Father Fyodor becomes determinedly fixated on locating those jewels to sate his thirst for a candle factory.

Father Fyodor walked up and down the room for half an hour, frightening his wife by the change in his expresssion and telling her all sorts of rubbish. Mother could understand only one thing – for no apparent reason Father Fyodor had cut his hair, intended to go off somewhere, and was leaving her for good.

“I’m not leaving you,” he kept saying. “I’m not. I’ll be back in a week. A man can have a job to do, after all. Can he or can’t he?”

“No, he can’t,” said his wife.

Father Fyodor even had to strike the table with his fist, although he was normally a mild person in his treatment of his near ones. He did so cautiously, since he had never done it before, and, greatly alarmed, his wife threw a kerchief around her head and ran to fetch the civilian clothing [for Father Fyodor] from her brother.

Ippolit’s biggest obstacle, however, is not his rivalry with the mildly ruthless Father Fyodor, it is his ally. Ostap Bender is a con artist and quickly convinces Ippolit to share Claudia’s secret. Ostap immediately requests a sixty percent share and manages to negotiate to an even split of the proceeds. The numerous renegotiations throughout the novel are a running joke as the new split is always to Ostap’s advantage.

Ostap Bender does have the necessary shadiness of character and intelligence to make progress on their quest. At first, it seems things will be easy as they are able to find a record of the twelve chairs which all were sent to the same place. Through missteps on Ippolit’s part, they lose the opportunity to purchase the whole lot, the chairs are sold individually, and end up spread all over the Soviet Union.

[T]here cannot be less than twenty-six and a half million chairs in the country. To make the figure truer we will take off another six and a half million. The twenty million left is the minimum possible number.

Amid this sea of chairs made of walnut, oak, ash, rosewood, mahogany, and Karelian birch, amid chairs made of fir and pinewood, the heros of this novel are to find one Hambs walnut chair with curved legs, containing Madam Petukhova’s treasure inside its chintz-upholstered belly.

The heros persist, locating and searching the chairs one by one. Ostap must continually devise new plans to raise proceeds for the quest, from charging tourists to view a landscape to marrying a woman. Ippolit helps out in ways always inept and sometimes degrading.

Aside from nicely rendered comic set pieces, the novel has excellent references to both high and low culture from all over the world. For instance, Ostap makes a reference to O’Henry’s stories about Jeff Peters and Andy Tucker and Ippolit tries to disguise himself with “Titanic” hair dye which, of course, ends disastrously. Hilariously, a Soviet debutante (Ellochka) has a rivalry, in her own mind, with “the daughter of the American billionaire, Vanderbilt” after seeing the latter’s picture in a magazine.

A dog skin made to look like muskrat was bought with a loan and added the finishing touch to the evening dress….

The dog-trimmed dress was the first well-aimed blow at Miss Vanderbilt. The snooty American girl was then dealt three more in succession. Ellochka bought a chinchilla tippet (Russian rabbit caught in Tula Province) from Fimka Sobak, a private furrier, acquired a hat made of dove-grey Argentine felt, and converted her husband’s new jacket into a stylish tunic. The billionaire’s daughter was shaken, but the affectionate Daddy Vanderbilt had evidently come to the rescue.

The latest number of the magazine contained a portrait of the cursed rival in four different styles…

Ilf and Petrov get laughs not only from Ellochka’s rivalry with Miss Vanderbilt, but, after pointing out William Shakespeare’s “estimated” vocabulary of twelve thousand words, also from her ability to “manage[] easily and fluently on thirty.”

Another comic set piece brings to mind Monty Python’s dead parrot skit and yet another, involving an argument over whether Tolstoy ate sausages while writing War and Peace seems a precursor to Seinfeld’s Tolstoy reference (“War, what is it good for.”). The novel is a belly shaker.

I will only quote one more passage, this one on official Soviet humor:

Iznurenkov manged to be funny about fields of activity in which you would not have thought it was possible to say anything funny. From the arid desert of excessive increases in the cost of production Iznurenkov managed to extract a hundred or so masterpieces of wit. Heine would have given up in despair had he been asked to say something funny and at the same time socially useful about the unfair tariff rates on slow-delivery freight consignments; Mark Twain would have fled from the subject, but Iznurenkov remained at his post.

Fortunately, the comedic duo of Ilf and Petrov remained at their post for one more novel which, Misha assures me, is better than this one. I strongly urge you to snag a copy of this quick and enjoyable read if any of the above has made you smile.

If you need a literary reason, the Complete Review gives it an A-.

If you like movie tie-ins, Mel Brooks made a film version.

If you want to make the earth a better place for our children, the 1960s introduction will assure you that, by reading this book, you are doing your part to mend “strains in Russo-American relations”.

Promote world peace, read The Twelve Chairs.


Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

May 17, 2010

I discussed this book during my coverage of the 2010 Tournament of Books, but, until now, had not posted a stand alone review. This book was too good to pass by without my writing a full review, notwithstanding that there are already numerous, excellent reviews on the web. Forgive my self-indulgence.

The story is that of Thomas Cromwell. When we first meet him he is still a child suffering under the tyranny of his abusive father, Walter. Neither Cromwell nor the reader remain with Walter for very long.

What is clear is his thought about Walter; I’ve had enough of this. If he gets after me again I’m going to kill him, and if I kill him they’ll hang me, and if they’re going to hang me I want a better reason.

Mantel’s dark wit suffuses the book, providing welcome relief to the tense struggle for power and survival in Henry VII’s England.

The narrative picks up when Cromwell has returned to England and is beginning his upward climb through the Royal Court. Cromwell serves Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, another very ambitious man. Of course, Thomas More is an enemy and the clash between Cromwell and More is central to the book. Mantel takes her time in getting us to that crucial point, though. Her deliberate speed is offputting to some, but the prose is so well written and the suspense so carefully, steadily built that I quite enjoyed it.

History has been more kind to Thomas More than to Cromwell. Mantel brings some balance to the comparison by heavily favoring Cromwell. The reader is brought inside the mind of this man of (relatively) low class birth as he strives to achieve on merit alone. Because of Cromwell has to earn his social status, his wealth, and his power, he is a very practical man. Where Thomas More takes pride in unbending adherence to religious duty, Cromwell values efficacy.

The conflict between Cromwell and More is not just that between a practical man and a principled one. Cromwell is more than an opportunist. Mantel has created a true Renaissance Man. Cromwell and King Henry discuss Renaissance author Baldassare Castiglione’s idea of “sprezzatura”; it is clear to the reader, if not to King Henry, that Cromwell is the embodiment of Castiglione’s ideal. Cromwell is reputedly able to quote the entire New Testament, he speaks multiple languages, he is a fearsome fighter, and he is knowledgeable about textiles, packing, falconry, canines, and people. He exercises that “dignified public restraint” urged by Castiglione, openly asserting himself only when necessary.

Cromwell himself places less stock in his “sprezzatura”. He does not believe his graceful excellence in a breadth of fields is what allows him to succeed where lesser men fail.

You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook…

So is Cromwell the good guy or a crook? He is both. He is easily the hero of this book and, in fact, is painted with perhaps a bit too much humanity (e.g. the scenes of caring for animals, children, and/or the elderly where others are more cold-hearted). He sees himself as a “subtle crook” and he is. He is a crook like Robin Hood. Those he swindles are the powerful, the overbearing, and the undeservingly rich in either wealth or esteem. Cromwell’s crookery is heroism. He beats the bad guys at their own game.

The re-imagining of Cromwell as the good guy and Thomas More as the bad guy is not just a charming story of a bad boy hero, but corresponds with a shift in cultural and moral standards. Thomas More’s dogmatic religiosity is disfavored in today’s society, whereas a modern reader will almost certainly laud Cromwell’s rise on merit and his questioning of received wisdom. Mantel most clearly defines the contrast between the men in this paragraph in which Cromwell attempts to understand More:

Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

While I may be particularly situated to appreciate Cromwell’s aversion to received dogmatism, Mantel is tapping into a vibrant strain in current culture. In important ways, Mantel is telling us more about our world and our century than she is about the 16th century. This is a narrative about the England of the 1500s, but the questions it poses are modern ones.

Mantel manages the large themes well and supports them with sometimes stunningly intricate details. For an example, take the scene in which Cromwell and Rafe Sadler, Cromwell’s son by upbringing if not by birth, play chess.

For a long time they sit gazing at their pieces, at the configuration which locks them in place. They see it coming: stalemate. “We’re too good for each other.”

“Perhaps we ought to play against other people.”

“Later. When we can wipe out all-comers.”

Rafe says, “Ah, wait!” He seizes his knight and makes it leap. Then he looks at the result, aghast.

“Rafe, you are foutu.”

For those who know little about chess, the scene works excellently, I suspect. Rafe tries too hard to win and goes from a draw to a loss, a tempermental difference also shown by their relative interest in playing other people. Rafe is eager where Cromwell is cautious to wait until sure of his advantage.

I tend to waste far too much time playing chess, so the details of literary descriptions of chess games interest me. Books so often get chess wrong.

A stalemate is a very specific type of position which modern rules declare a draw. Wikipedia has an excellent article on the technical definition of stalemate with this accurate explanation of the circumstances in which it generally arises:

During the endgame, stalemate is a resource that can enable the player with the inferior position to draw the game. In more complicated positions, stalemate is much rarer, usually taking the form of a swindle that succeeds only if the superior side is inattentive.

What initially bothered me about the scene is that the implication is that both players see the stalemate coming and cannot avoid it, proving how equally matched they are. “Draw” would work, at first glance, better than “stalemate” in the scene because a draw without stalemate is the much more likely result in the case of evenly matched opponents, particularly in complex positions. Specifiying a stalemate invites the chess-literate (obsessed) reader to speculate as to what sort of position has arisen. The position must not involve a swindle or they would not both see it coming. The position must be complex. In a simple position, even a moderately experienced player would not try to avoid a stalemate if the only alternative were an losing move because it would be easy to see the alternative move was losing. It is extremely difficult to imagine a position where both sides have equal material and equal advantage but the game is headed to an inevitable stalemate absent error. “Draw” is less jarring than “stalemate”.

What works is that such a position is possible. And “stalemate” is the better literary choice because a stalemate is precisely what occurs in the larger story. King Henry VIII is left without any legal moves in his quest to marry Anne Boleyn. The parallel is nicely done. The coordination between this otherwise insignificant game and the subject of the novel would be lost if Mantel had written a more pedestrian draw. “Stalemate” is necessary, really, to her artistic purposes.

But there is another potential problem: historical plausibility. My examination of stalemate possibilities resulted in my stumbling across the history of the stalemate rule. It has not always been treated as a draw. In fact, in England stalemate was not considered a draw until the 19th century. Mantel is saved, however, because Italy adopted the rule that a stalemate was a draw in the 13th century. Cromwell spent considerable time in Italy and, therefore, could have adopted that rule and taught it to Rafe. Again, Mantel’s scene achieves, barely, plausibility.

And so my initial questioning of the scene resulted in a vindication of Mantel’s choice. The parallel between the game and the narrative is beautiful and, importantly to me, does not come at the expense of accuracy. My faith in Mantel’s research and fidelity to plausibility is strengthened; my admiration of her artistic achievement is enhanced.
Of course, most readers will care little about the chess details of that very short scene. It is only a very small reason why I am so impressed with the work. I tried to point out a number of the larger reasons before launching into my chess pedantry. But there are still more.

The use of “he” as usually referring to Cromwell is a pleasingly original narrative technique that has been pointed out and discussed by others. Likewise, Mantel’s ability to draw the reader into the King Henry’s court has been eloquently lauded before.

There is a great deal more to love about this book too. I found the prose always excellent and sometimes delightful. Rather than try to continue cataloguing all Mantel’s successes, I will leave you with one of my favorite snatches of her prose:

Anne struggles to sit up, she sees him clearly, she smiles, she says his name. They bring a basin of water strewn with rose petals, and wash her face; her finger reaches out, tentative, to push the petals below the water, so each of them becomes a vessel shipping water, a cup, a perfumed grail.


The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

May 8, 2010

While I had heard of Angela Carter through various lists and from a number of blogs (for instance, here, here, and here; not all on The Bloody Chamber), I had not read any of her work. This collection of short stories, however, seemed perfect for my wife. I gave it to her as a gift. After reading it, she called this collection of gothically re-imagined fairy tales a “must read”, wonderfully written, and brilliant. The exact words are lost in the abyss of the past (or abysmal past, I am not sure), but she praised it lavishly. Well, most of the lavishing was directed at the title story, but she enjoyed the others too. I scored a hit. (Pat, pat, pat.)

You see, I was confident Marky would like these “dark, sensual, fantastic” stories because she likes dark, sensual, fantastic stories. Joyce Carol Oates’ The Beasts is one of her favorite books. There is less fantasy in that work, but it is certainly dark and sensual. So, I knew the subject matter could entice. And Angela Carter is a literary goddess. How could things have gone wrong? There was a way, but it was only a minor problem. The title story was only a story rather than a novel. I share the disappointment, as “The Bloody Chamber” is phenomenal, but I know Angela Carter has a number of novels waiting for us.

If you do not know, these are fairy tales with a darkly feminist twist. The female protagonists step out of their timid, helpless gender-cast roles and turn expected events on their heads. Carter sometimes retells the same fable several different ways, each to good effect and each with its own pleasing surprise.

“The Bloody Chamber” tells of Bluebeard from the perspective of his fourth wife. At the start of the story, she is seventeen and recently betrothed to Bluebeard who, in this telling, goes unnamed. He is mysterious and wealthy. The corpse of his last wife has only just cooled, but the girl is poor and has taken her chance to escape. She bats away her mother’s questions about love, she has learned better than to rely on gossamer threads of feeling as a bridge to happiness:

For my mother herself had gladly, scandalously, defiantly beggared herself for love, and, one fine day, her gallant soldier never returned from the wars, leaving his wife and child a legacy of tears that never quite dried, a cigar box full of medals and the antique service revolver that my mother, grown magnificently eccentric in hardship, kept always in her reticule, in case – how I teased her – she was surprised by footpads on her way home from the grocer’s shop.

The young bride tries a different route. Lessons learned from mere anecdote are more often false than true and always incomplete. The groom allures, but he is as frightening as charming.

I know it must seem a curious analogy, a man with a flower, but sometimes he seemed to me like a lily. Yes. A lily. Possessed of that strange, ominous calm of sentient vegetable, like one of those cobra-headed, funereal lilies whose white sheaths are curlved out of flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum.

The bride has gone too far to turn back by the time she would consider it. As wife to a powerful man with criminal secrets, there are obstacles to a successful flight.

The imagery of lilies continues throughout the story. The lilies and portents of horror. Angela Carter slowly builds the tension from “[a] choker of rubies…like an extraordinarily precious slit throat” to the narrator’s sense in herself of “a potentiality for corruption that took [her] breath away.” The narrator is a naïve young girl, but she has made a very calculated bargain. Things cannot, of course, be quite so easy. This is not a happily ever after fairy tale, nor is Carter’s re-telling. Carter builds the tension to plateau after plateau, until the final riveting climax that feels entirely satisfying and not at all inevitable.

In each of the stories, including this one, Carter deftly manages the psychology of the characters and the setting in which the action takes place. Everyone has an original take, even when Carter reworks a classic twice or more. The story of the beauty and the beast is twice told. In one, “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”, the father of a girl gets stuck in bad weather. He happens on a mansion where he receives shelter and assistance. The trouble in this story begins when the father is on his way out:

But still, because he loved his daughter, Beauty’s father stole the rose.

The minor theft leads to the conflict and intrigue, the meeting of Beauty and The Beast.

The second re-telling is no less original and begins very differently:

My father lost me to The Beast at cards.

Familiar touchstones from the original provide a strange reassurance despite the reader knowing twists are coming. And the collection has a nice coherence to it. The multiple re-tellings of “The Beauty and the Beast” and “Little Red Riding Hood” mysteriously pulls you more deeply into the experience despite the obvious signal of a re-telling that these are only stories. The stories themselves are linked in other ways too, both to each other and to fairy tales generally. In the first story, the title story, the groom responds to his bride’s objections to going to bed in daylight with: “All the better to see you.” The final story is “Wolf-Alice”, a nice conclusion to the arc of the collection. In another story, the narrator notes that things get “curiouser and curiouser”. In other words, these stories are not just mashed together, but do constitute a cohesive work of art that fits comfortably in the larger body of literature. The collection is so well-conceived and written, it feels essential.

As engaging as the stories are, as surprising as they each are, as snugly as they fit together, it was the prose that knocked me over. Carter writes sentences as pleasing as anyone. The lilies in “The Bloody Chamber” do recur and provide one of my favorite passages:

And I began to shudder, like a racehorse before a race, yet also with a kind of fear, for I felt both a strange, impersonal arousal at the thought of love and at the same time a repugnance I could not stifle for his white, heavy flesh that had too much in common with the armfuls of arum lilies that filled my bedroom in great glass jars, those undertakers’ lilies with the heavy pollen that powders your fingers as if you had dipped them in tumeric. The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you.


The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

May 4, 2010

Lord Henry Wotton has to be in the running for the greatest fictional dinner guest. He is incredibly charming, provocative, and sharp. I am half-inclined to believe that The Picture of Dorian Gray was conceived as a vehicle for Harry’s witty persona. Comparatively, Dorian and his picture are rather drab.

“What of art?” she asked. [Gladys, Duchess of Monmouth]

“It is a malady.” [Harry]

“Love?”

“An illusion.”

“Religion?”

“The fashionable substitute for belief.”

“You are a sceptic.”

“Never! Scepticism is the beginning of faith.”

“What are you?”

“To define is to limit.”

“Give me a clue.”

“Threads snap. You would lose your way in the labyrinth.”

The book is full of delicious exchanges like this, and I’ve cut this one short. While, in some ways, Harry is the villain of the story, he is the most pleasant character with whom to spend time, in this or any other novel that comes to mind. “Harry spends his days in saying what is incredible and his evenings in doing what is improbable.”

Among Harry’s “incredible” sayings are some enviable zingers:

[S]he is a peacock in everything but beauty.

[S]he tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant.

“You must admit, Harry, that women give to men the very gold of their lives.”

“Possibly,” he sighed, “but they invariably want it back in such very small change.”

While Harry is busy entertaining, Dorian descends into a darkness without conscience. I was taken by the extent to which Wilde anticipates Camus’ Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall:

There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.

Camus builds his novel around this insight, while for Wilde it seems to register as little more than one of Harry’s provocations. Or, maybe Wilde just examined the proposition from another angle. Dorian Gray could be put forward as a counterexample to Clamence. Clamence avoids the judgment of others through self-reproach, but Dorian is unable to do so.

The overt message to the story is that, after all, one cannot escape the consequences of action, even with the help of a supernatural painting. As I am learning about Wilde, he likes to put forward in his writing both a proposition and its opposite, perhaps the better to inoculate himself from criticism. It could be that, instead, his proclamations, as in the introduction to this work, that he has a love of artistic beauty above everything are the true key to his work. His “no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” gives him license to make a well-written book without answering for any deeper meanings within. I believe that his warning that “those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril” is apt.

I am not sure what I pull from the work other than a delight in Wilde’s dialogue and playfulness. Dorian could serve as a warning against vanity, lack of conscience, or the destruction of art. But I do not think he is a warning. I think that Dorian’s ultimate punishment is not for his vanity, but for his effort to try to destroy art.

There are other possible readings. Wilde, of course, was a homosexual at a time it was dangerously illegal to be openly so. Like Dorian and his painting, Wilde necessarily kept a portion of himself hidden from prying eyes. But that part, like Dorian’s painting, could not be destroyed without obliterating Wilde himself. This view seems a little too convenient and too focused on Wilde to be convincing to me, though the theme of duplicity and split-selves is certainly recurrent. My point is only that there is a wealth material for speculative (half-baked, in my case) interpretation if one is so inclined.

Wilde, of course, says it best: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

There is an abundance of shiny surfaces in which to gaze. Harry’s goading statements should stir readers:

The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play.

or

I should fancy that the real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich.

And, so too, will the beauty of the prose and the construction of the narrative. There is an early passage in which Dorian Gray focuses on a bee as a distraction from Harry’s “strange panegyric on youth.” Later, a bee returns.

A bee flew in and buzzed round the blue-dragon bowl that, filled with sulphur-yellow roses, stood before him. He felt perfectly happy.

Dorian picks up the thread of the thought ignored many pages before. It is excellent craftsmanship on Wilde’s part and something I had not noticed until re-reading the quotes I had marked (I love the Kindle for this) while on my first time through.

Remember, Wilde’s highest praise is that a book is well-written. This one is and exquisitely so.

(Sarah reviewed this same work recently at her blog, A Rat in the Book Pile. I definitely recommend a trip over there for another perspective.)


Summertime by J.M. Coetzee

January 24, 2010

I opened the book expecting brilliance. Coetzee writes with a penetrating clarity that is refreshing and mesmerizing. Having thoroughly enjoyed Boyhood, I pragmatically and eagerly skipped Youth for Summertime. I will circle back to Youth and everything else I can find by Coetzee, but I am not sorry to have jumped ahead. It gives me an additional reason to read this one again. The first reason: Summertime is brilliant.

I cannot allow you to rely solely on my own enthusiasm for this work. After all, I am a huge fan of Coetzee. So, please, go read John Self’s excellent review, then Kevin From Canada’s also excellent review. They will more than adequately summarize the structure, introduce you to the characters, and encourage you with beautiful quotes. Because I cannot improve upon the reviews that have been written, I will merely try to contribute something to the conversation.

John Self and Kevin both discussed Coetzee’s use of others to criticize himself and question his life’s work. Being a fan of novels that ask existential questions (see, e.g., Camus, The Fall), I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of Summertime. In addition to examining the writer’s intrusion into the lives of those close to him, Coetzee questions the enterprise of writing itself. One of the fictional Coetzee’s lovers recounts the following dialogue:

‘Do you really believe that?’ he said. ‘That books give meaning to our lives?’

‘Yes.’ I said. ‘A book should be an axe to chop open the frozen sea inside us. What else should it be?’

‘A gesture of refusal in the face of time. A bid for immortality.’

‘No one is immortal. Books are not immortal…..’

‘I didn’t mean immortal in the sense of existing outside time. I mean surviving beyond one’s physical demise.’

‘You want people to read you after you are dead?’

‘It affords me some consolation to cling to that prospect.’

‘Even if you won’t be around to witness it?’

‘Even if I won’t be around to witness it.’

‘But why should the people of the future bother to read the book you write if it doesn’t speak to them, if it doesn’t help them find meaning in their lives?’

‘Perhaps they will still like to read books that are well written.’

‘That’s silly. It’s like saying that if I build a good enough gram-radio then people will still be using it in the twenty-fifth century. But they won’t. Because gram-radios, however well made, will be obsolete by then. They won’t speak to twenty-fifth-century people.’

‘Perhaps in the twenty-fifth century there will still be a minority curious to hear what a late-twentieth-century gram-radio sounded like.’

‘Collectors. Hobbyists. Is that how you intend to spend your life: sitting at your desk handcrafting an object that might or might not be preserved as a curiosity?’

He shrugged. ‘Have you a better idea?’

You think I am showing off. I can see that. You think I make up dialogue to show how smart I am. But that is how they were at times, conversations between John and myself. They were fun. I enjoyed them; I missed them afterwards, after I stopped seeing him. In fact our conversations were probably what I missed most. He was the only man I knew who would let me beat him in an honest argument, who wouldn’t bluster or obfuscate or go off in a huff when he saw he was losing. And I always beat him, or nearly always.

This dialogue is delicious, so exquisite it sounds made up, polished. There are so many levels to this excerpt. “You think I make up dialogue”, but all the dialogue is made up by J.M. Coetzee for the characters talking to John Coetzee’s biographer. “In fact our conversations were probably what I missed most.” Ouch.

But the philosophical discussion is interesting. Will anyone be reading books, even “well-written” books five hundred years hence? She, the former lover, thinks John Coetzee lost this particular discussion, brags to the biographer about it. And yet her argument is flawed. As John Self pointed out with respect to descriptions of John Coetzee’s “cold, ill at ease, ‘stalled’” personality: “such self-effacement can itself be a form of vanity.”

Here, the proud former lover thought she won, but did she? Surely the logically sound comparison with the content of books would not be a gram-radio, but the music carried by a gram-radio. The failure of John Coetzee the character to seize on this is striking. J.M. Coetzee must see the defect. John Coetzee, while cold and ill at ease, “The Wooden Man” another character suggests, has a tenderness which he wields gently, subtly. He lets his former lover “win”, though she has won nothing. John is not merely magnanimous, he is caring. No other man, she claims, will allow her to win. John does when he need not. Even in this sometimes brutally self-mocking book, J.M. Coetzee slips in one of his virtues among the many shots at his flaws.

The philosophical point is made too. Books may not be read the way they are now, but there is little reason to believe that Bach and Beethoven, Shakespeare and Cervantes will become irrelevant anytime soon. Simply “well-written” work will not survive to be read by more than dedicated “hobbyists”, but great work likely will. John was (and J.M. is) striving for greatness. They are talented enough that they do have a chance at that immortality.

J.M. Coetzee, in Summertime, goes further than questioning whether “well-written” books are worth the effort. He attacks the very concept of truth in storytelling. At The Asylum, John Self pointed out several places where the biographer or his interviewees questioned whether a written work could capture some objective truth. Perhaps, this is J.M. Coetzee’s theory of the relativity of human relationships. The scientific analogy springs to mind not only because it seems apt, but because the language and imagery of science are prominent in both the reviews to which I have referred. KFC discussed how the act of a writer’s observing “impacts the observed”, an excellent summary of one aspect of quantum physics (which aspect led some to adopt the Copenhagen Interpretation). At The Asylum, you can read the quote describing John Coetzee as “like an abstracted scientist”.

The relativity of human relationships, or the human essence, is crucial to the Summertime project. An autobiography provides only one aspect of the man, an author’s work another, a biography another. There remains the question of how one person can ever know another. Through a conversation between John Coetzee’s biographer (in italics) and a former colleague of John Coetzee’s with whom he had a “liason”, J.M. Coetzee raises these questions:

Mme Denoel, I have been through the letters and diaries. What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record – not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer. In his letters he is making up a fiction of himself for his correspondents; in his diaries he is doing much the same for his own eyes, or perhaps for posterity. As documents they are valuable, of course; but if you want the truth you have to go behind the fictions they elaborate and hear from people who knew him directly, in the flesh.

But what if we are all fictioneers, as you call Coetzee? What if we all continually make up the stories of our lives? Why should what I tell you about Coetzee be any worthier of credence than what he tells you himself?

Of course we are all fictioneers. I do not deny that. But which would you rather have: a set of independent reports from a range of independent perspectives, from which you can then try to synthesize a whole; or the massive, unitary self-projection comprised by his oevre? I know which I would prefer.

The answer here is far less than satisfactory. The biographer has made his choice, but his certainty suggests error. The multiple perspectives method certainly works for this book. We see John Coetzee in ways that we could not see him had J.M. Coetzee chosen any other method to tell his story. The fact that people are not only seen as different but, in important ways, are different in different relational contexts is fascinating. But is the multiple perspectives method superior, or simply a good one in this case. It remains the fact that none of the people interviewed seem to know or care a great deal about the fictional John Coetzee’s artistic work. This is simply another way to know him, but not a better way.

I have neither the competence nor the space to provide any convincing answer. I do find the question fascinating and this book is an excellent exploration of that and other themes. And the other themes are all enjoyable too. Even the imagery and the portrait of South Africa at that time make the book worthwhile. As Kevin From Canada said: “Summertime is only 266 pages long but it is a novel…of incredible complexity.” It is also a joy to read.