Monday, September 14, 2020

Jules Verne's 20000 Leagues Under The Sea


OK. You know the basic story. But a few details first.

In 1866 there are reports of a giant sea monster attacking ships, probably something like a narwhal. An expedition on the ship Abraham Lincoln is outfitted to find it, presumably kill it and mount it on a board for some museum. Pierre Aronnax, a French scientist with a taste for adventure joins the expedition. Aronnax brings along his servant Conseil. The other important person on this expedition is the Canadian harpoonist, Ned Land. (Because what sea-monster hunting expedition doesn't need a savage harpoonist?)

They find what they're looking for, and well, it's not a giant narwhal.

Captain Nemo's ship, Nautilus, is attacked by the Abraham Lincoln, and in fighting off the attack, Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned Land are thrown overboard only to be rescued by the Nautilus. Rescued, but not released, and our trio in the company of Captain Nemo go sailing around the world, having adventures.

The book is an early science-fiction story, and like a lot of later hard science fiction, it spends a good deal of its time speculating on the nature and possibility of future inventions, submarines and diving suits in particular. Here Verne did pretty well, it seems to me. The novel is also interested in actual contemporary science, especially lesser known instances in biology. This is Aronnax' field, and he is forever fascinated by sightings of species he knows about only by repute. He tells us about them:

A flight of sea-swallows rested on the Nautilus. It was a species of the Sterna Nilotica, peculiar to Egypt; its beak is black, head gray and pointed, the eye surrounded by white spots, the back, wings, and tail of a grayish color, the belly and throat white, and claws red.

Most people seem to find this sort of stuff dull, and, well...I'm most people, too. I suspect this went over better in the 19th century when it wouldn't have had to compete with National Geographic specials.

There are two sources of tension, interrelated. Our trio of rescuees are happy to have been rescued, and are mostly enjoying the adventures, but have occasional thoughts about getting back to civilization. Captain Nemo says he never will set them free. We know they must have gotten off the Nautilus eventually, because we're reading the book Aronnax has written. So how did it happen? 

The other great question is Captain Nemo himself. Who is he and why does he hate the world so much? Why will he not even have contact with the world to the extent of setting our trio down on a shore someplace out of the way? He doesn't seem to be a monster, just deeply injured. We get various clues, but no complete answer, at least until the sequel The Mysterious Island.  Which I haven't read. I do wonder a bit if any answer can be good enough. 

Anyway, pretty fun. It was weirdly a much timelier read for me than I would have guessed. Moby-Dick is alluded to on the third page and it seems to me Verne might actually know the book. I'd sort of long been under the impression nobody had read Moby-Dick until it was rediscovered in the 30s. That doesn't seem to be entirely true. Stevenson knew it and now it seems it Verne did, too.

The other even stranger connection was Pontoppidan. Turns out there's a Bishop Pontoppidan (1698-1764), ancestor of Henrik Pontoppidan, author of Lucky Per, who wrote a treatise on sea monsters, cited by Aronnax early on. It's not every day you see the name Pontoppidan.

My Heron Books edition doesn't say who the translator was, which is bad form, but I believe it to be the Miller revision of the original Mercier translation. The introduction tells me that '20000 Leagues Under The Seas' would be a better translation of the original French; it gives a better impression of what happens, too. They zoom around a lot, rather than going to the absolute bottom of the ocean and staying there.

I've finished all my books of summer, but haven't finished blogging about them. But I took the book back outside for its photo op, and read a good chunk of it while here.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Zadie Smith's Intimations


The Other Reader and I sometimes wonder if Zadie Smith is a better essayist or novelist; the real answer is, why choose? Her two previous volumes of essays (Changing My Mind and Feel Free) were both great; there's a great deal of incisive intelligence in them, not necessarily a thing one expects in a novelist. I found the first more of a revelation: I particularly loved her reminiscences of her father in the earlier volume. It may also be that I'd already read a good deal of the second (in the New York Review of Books) by the time I read the collection.

Intimations is a short volume (under a hundred pages) and a product of our current crazy times: she's donating her royalties to charities for racial justice and pandemic relief. It deals with perceptions of race, being in New York in the pandemic, too much quiet (especially when one has children). Something to do, when there's nothing to do.

But the longest and best essay is called Screengrabs, written, it seems and as the subtitle suggests, 'before the virus', and it's largely a series of character sketches: 'a character in a wheelchair', 'a woman with a little dog', 'an elder at the bus stop'. They feel very true.

So maybe she's a novelist after all.

I was in a new bookstore for the first time in a long time (Type Books here in Toronto) and it felt wonderful, even if I had to wear a mask, making my glasses fog up. So nice to once again see what's on the table at a good independent bookstore.

I also picked up the Vivian Gornick book on rereading, but the first book she discusses rereading is D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers.  I thought maybe I ought to read it first, for the first time.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Wordless Wednesday

 Killarney Provincial Park

Where I was while I was away from the Internet...

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Amélie Nothomb's Life Form (#WITMonth)

In Life Form, the character Amélie Nothomb (sort of to be confused with the author, but not completely) receives a letter from Iraq, from Melvin Mapple, who writes, "I'm a private in the US Army...I've been posted in Baghdad ever since the beginning of this fucking war, over six years ago."

She decides to write back. 

The correspondence is basically the book. It turns out the Melvin Mapple has become terribly obese--this was a problem among American soldiers in Iraq, though Mapple is an extreme case--and is unhappy with the whole situation. Though both are now against the war, Amélie tries to help him make sense out of the situation.

I thought the letters from Mapple were brilliantly convincing. They sounded like I would imagine a fairly literate, but not especially educated, young American writing. So all kudos to Nothomb, but then also to the translator, Alison Anderson. 

This is the second novel I've read by Nothomb and I've seen the movie version of a third. She's a Belgian writer now living in France, so generally is the Amélie Nothomb character in the books. Nevertheless they are clearly fiction. Pétronille, that I read earlier, was funnier, but the Iraq War and obesity are not exactly funny subjects.

Still Melvin's obesity gets transformed into an artistic statement against the war, which is a little funny, and allows for witty double-edged observations on the nature of art. 

" obesity has become my life's work.' [49]

"I had not known how to provide him with one essential artistic quality: doubt." [64]

"There is a crook in every writer." [108]

The novel ends in a surprising twist.

I don't think either Life Form or Pétronille are considered among the very top Amélie Nothomb novels, yet I found both of them funny and thoughtful. They're also short and easy-to-read. But if she gets better than these, she could be very good indeed. Hygiene and the Assassin, The Prince's Act, and especially Fear and Trembling have all won major French language prizes.

Not sure about that picture of her on the cover, though.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Love In The Time of Cholera

"Take advantage of it now, while you are young, and suffer all you can, because these things don't last your whole life."

Love in the Time of Cholera is funny, romantic, and wise about love in all its seasons: young, old, and in-between; in sickness and in health, etc.

But I also have to admit I had higher hopes for the book.

In the approved fashion, the book begins in medias res, or not exactly the middle since our main characters are in their 70s, but certainly not at the beginning nor at the end.

Fermina Daza and Dr. Juvenal Urbino are an old married couple. They're tender with each other, though she's getting frail and his memory is going. As an old married couple their relationship is not without its grumbles, but they still care for each other.

Then Dr. Urbino dies in a tragic, but also comic, accident involving a parrot.

Immediately after the funeral Florentino Ariza proposes to Fermina Daza. He's waited, he says, fifty-one years, nine months, and four days for this moment.

The chapter ends and the novel flashes back to when Florentino and Fermina first met as teenagers and they fell passionately in love. He lurks where she might see him; composes a violin sonata in her honor and plays where she might hear it; and most of all, writes her love letters, dropping them off where he knows she will find them.

Eventually Fermina's father gets wind of this budding romance and drags her off--Florentino is a bastard son and has yet to make his fortune--and Florentino is left in Colombia, heartbroken. (That's Florentino's mother quoted at the top.)

Trips to remote lands so that one party gets over some inappropriate love is a frequent trope in novels and we know how that works in general: it doesn't. Except this time it does. Fermina comes back two years later, looks at the badly dressed Florentino, figuratively slaps her forehead, and says, "What was I thinking!" 

At the end of the book, the novel returns to the now mature romance of Fermina and Florentino. This newly refounded romance surprises, and is also handled with tenderness and humor.

It's all the stuff in the middle I had my doubts about. Florentino makes his everlasting pile in the steamboat business. That was expected. He romances some vast binder of women--we're given a number--but all that flesh never diminishes his longing for the lost Fermina. (Well, maybe once, a little bit, but before long he returns to Fermina even in his thoughts.) It was not very convincing, but worse: I thought it was dull. I'd have liked better a book that was a hundred pages shorter with less incidencing in the middle.

Ah, well. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a Nobel prize winner and I'm a...blogger. Maybe I'm wrong...

The Other Reader read the book earlier in the year and liked it better than I did. One question we discussed was how seriously were we to take Florentino's writing talents. I thought we were to assume he was effective: the start of Fermina's love is with the letters. Well, they were teenagers, perhaps not especially discriminating, but it certainly wasn't his clothes, or his looks, or his manners that Fermina found engaging. Later we learn that Florentino writes love letters for hire in town; they work; and several love matches are engendered by the letters he wrote. He becomes the godfather to a child whose parental romance he facilitated. The widowed Fermina is appalled by Florentino's proposal after the funeral; understandably; Florentino is balding and constipated and not the substance of love, but it's his written philosophical meditations on mortality that first put Fermina back on the hook.

The Other Reader, though, argued that none of these people are especially discerning; that we're told Florentino read everything, even the worst sort of romantic trash, and modelled his love letters on that. 

I dunno. I suppose a book that people can read differently in serious ways has something going for it. 

If you've read it, what did you think?

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Anna Seghers' Transit (#WITMonth)

 "Aren't you fed up with such thrilling stories?"

The narrator of Anna Seghers' Transit buttonholes the reader and asks that question--with exasperation. With cause. He's a German, persona non grata with the Nazis, stuck in Marseille, in Vichy France. He's neither able to stay, nor to leave, nor to return home. A life less thrilling would be welcome.

Nevertheless, Transit is a story with thrills.

At the start of the novel, the narrator Seidler is in a work camp for enemy aliens in the north of France. He'd already escaped from a Nazi prison into France; as the Nazis roll into France in 1940, the prisoners have to convince the French guard to look the other way as they flee the camp, Seidler escaping for a second time, because most of them would be doomed if caught by the Nazis. 

Seidler makes his way south with other refugees, passing through Paris. He agrees as a favor for a friend to deliver a letter to the writer Weidel, but when he finds Weidel's place of residence, Weidel has committed suicide, leaving only a manuscript and his documents. The letter he was meant to deliver, now undeliverable, tells him that the writer's estranged widow needs the documents, as well as Weidel himself, to get a visa so she can leave France. Seidler takes the manuscript, the documents, the suitcase, and goes south to Marseille to deliver all these things to the waiting widow.

So far the story could easily be by Helen MacInnes or Alan Furst. But Seidler is not a naif caught up in a romance, nor a dedicated anti-Nazi; he's just a mechanic who doesn't like the Nazis (and whom the Nazis do not like.) He'd like to settle in Marseille, stop running. He becomes attached to the child of friends, a child who lives in fear of abandonment. The local authorities tell him he can only stay in Marseille so long as he can demonstrate that he's making efforts to leave. So in addition to MacInnes and Furst, you can throw in a bit of Kafka. Everyone in Marseille is facing the same conundrum: you have to have an exit visa, a transit visa for any country you pass through on your way out, as well as an entry visa for your destination country. Any one of those visas can expire while you're still trying to acquire the others.

He helps people who really do want to leave, who have to leave, but for himself he dates, falls in love, discovers pizza. He just wants a normal-ish life, but he's been thrust into a thriller story, albeit one with Kafka-esque twists.

Anna Seghers herself was German and was arrested in 1933 by the Nazis for being a communist. She was released, but she was also of Jewish ancestry and left for France soon after. She passed through Marseille on her way to Mexico where she spent the war years before returning to East Germany after the war. Transit first appeared in English and Spanish translations in 1944, and not in German until 1948, and then only in East Germany. My edition has an afterward by Heinrich Böll for its first publication in West Germany.

I thought it was very good. One of the interesting things about it were the characters who did not want to go. Sure, Rick Blaine decides to stay, but he never seemed like he would be in danger. I mean, he's Humphrey Bogart after all. In Transit, Seidler is not the only one who doesn't want to cross the ocean. Another returns to Lithuania, his home, even though it's almost certainly a death sentence. Others decide to quit running, knowing or suspecting the cost.

It's Women in Translation month! This was translated by Margot Dembauer Betto for New York Review of Books.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Master and Margarita

What if the devil came to Moscow in 1930?

Professor Woland arrives from somewhere (never quite specified--maybe Germany? Maybe someplace a little hotter...) and arranges to give a demonstration in black magic, after which, in a nod to the official rationalism of the Soviet Union, he will explain how the tricks are done.

Except he doesn't. Because those tricks can't be rationally explained.

We're not exactly told Woland is the devil, but it's pretty clear from the start. Wikipedia tells me that voland is an archaic German word for demon. At the very beginning of Bulgakov's novel, in arranging his demonstration of magic, Woland meets Mikhail Berlioz, the director of MASSOLIT. He predicts Berlioz will die within the hour when his head is cut off by a woman. Which proceeds to happen. Did Woland make it happen? Or did he just foresee it?

The epigram to Bulgakov's novel is another clue: he quotes Goethe's Faust: "'Say at last -- who are thou?'/'That power that I serve/Which wills forever evil/Yet does forever good.'" The quote is from the scene in Faust's study after Faust has first summoned Mephistopheles. Is Woland doing good by doing evil to those who deserve it in 1930s Moscow? Hmm. A bit. But I'd say Bulgakov's novel is far too anarchic to be so simply categorized.

But it's a great anarchic ride. There are three strands woven together: there's Woland, and his devilish entourage, in Moscow, afflicting the comfortable, getting rid of minor bureaucrats as needed. There's the final days of Yeshua ha-Notsri, that is, Jesus of Nazareth, recognizably parallel to the biblical account, but not identical to it. Is that a tale told by the devil? Or is it the novel of The Master, thought burned? Or is it the actual historical record? Don't ask me; evidence for all three theories appear.

The third strand is the one that gives the novel its title, but is the last to get started. It's a love story. The thirteenth (numerologically significant?) chapter is titled 'Enter the Hero' and it's where we first meet the Master, who has a written a novel about Pontius Pilate and his search for philosophical wisdom, which may be identical to some of the chapters we've already read. But the Master, otherwise unnamed, is confined to a madhouse, and believes his manuscript burned, that his one true love has forgotten him. 

The nineteenth chapter is titled 'Margarita.' It begins:
"Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no such thing as real, true, eternal love? Cut out his lying tongue!
Follow me, reader, and only me and I will show you that love!" 

Margarita believes she has lost the Master; he thinks she has forgotten him. But maybe by becoming a witch, and with a little help from the Devil...

Bulgakov was unable to publish this during his lifetime--or really anything during the last decade of his life. (He died in 1940, at age 48, of kidney disease.) He must have known this novel had no chance. He had reason to be angry at Stalin, at the snivelling Stalinist bureaucrats who managed to keep him from publishing. Yet the satirical parts struck me as surprisingly genial. Embarrassment and discomfiture are the rule, not anything more dire. Berlioz dies, grotesquely, but the director of the theatre, who has done some actual bad things, is magically carried off to Yalta and returns to Moscow at the end unharmed. There are other restorations of the sort.

It's funny, it's affecting, it's a remarkable tour-de-force. Basically it's a great book that bears rereading and I've only just read it, so maybe I'll simply not say anything else. (And I've been a slow blogger of late.) But I can see that I will be rereading it. It's been translated multiple times. I read it in the Michael Glenny version. I didn't compare this version to others, but it read quite well.