Monday, November 23, 2020

Eduardo Mendoza's The Mystery of the Enchanted Crypt (#NovNov)

 'In this shite-house of a country even the lunatics are fascist.'

Eduardo Mendoza's The Mystery of the Enchanted Crypt (1979, translated by Nick Caistor, 2008) is narrated by a lunatic. Well, at the start of the novel, he's an inmate in a lunatic asylum. That comment is made by one of the staff doctors. But Dr. Sugrañes, the head of the asylum, tells our narrator he's recovered. (We might have some doubts.) It's only a bureaucratic snafu that's keeping him inside. And if only he'll perform a small service, just a very small service, for Inspector Flores, he can win his freedom.

The narrator was a police informer before he fell foul of the police, and was locked up in the asylum. (Exactly why an asylum and not prison is not made particularly clear.) He's presumed to know the streets and have sources of information.

The case Flores wants solved is the disappearance of a fourteen-year-old girl from a convent school. Six years before there was a similar disappearance, but the case was dropped and the mystery never explained when the girl returned a few days later. Flores wants to know what happened, make sure this girl returns, too, but wants deniability if he needs it. Hence our narrator is put on the case.

The 1979 date is important. The novel is set in the immediate post-Franco era in Barcelona. Flores was a policeman in the Franco era; he remains in his position after the death of Franco. The narrator was locked up in the Franco years. Was his case political as well? Probably.

It's funny, or I thought so, though some of the jokes are a bit insider-y:
'...all she ever bought were the Planeta prizewinners, and you know what they're like.' [109]
I immediately looked up to see if Mendoza had won the Planeta prize. He had not. But they didn't hold it against him (or maybe they did?) because he won it later.
'I hailed a taxi I had spotted, jumped in and told the driver, 
    "Follow those two cars. I'm from the secret police."
    "So am I," he said. "Which branch?"
    "Drugs," I improvised. "How is the wage bargaining going?"
    "Badly, as usual," grumbled the bogus taxi driver. "We'll see what happens at these elections. I'm going to vote Felipe González: what about you?"
    "Whoever my bosses tell me to." [143]
González is a socialist. Perhaps not whom the secret police should be voting for. And:
'Seeing a dentist weep so despairingly was strangely moving.' [151]
Which made me laugh out loud, though maybe that's just me... 

There's also a running joke about how our narrator can't get a shower; he was in the middle of a soccer game at the insane asylum when he was first put on the case and never gets a wash until the end.

It's also got the shape of a P.I. novel and the solution isn't bad.

Politics, humor, plotting. Pretty good all-in-all. This is the first in a series by Mendoza with his mad detective.

Mendoza is a contemporary Spanish novelist (b. 1943) and celebrated--he won the Premio Cervantes in 2016--but only some of his works have made it into English. This is the first thing by him I've read, but I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for others. Wikipedia says his works are divided, like Graham Greene's sometimes were, into 'novels' and 'entertainments'. If so, this was an entertainment--and indeed it was--but substantial enough, too. 

I'm not really sure where I heard about him, probably someone in the bloggy world, though. If it was you, it's OK, you can now raise your hand...

At 192 pages, and not particularly dense ones, I'm guessing it's 50000 words, maybe a little long for the category, but I say it's a Novella in November!

Sunday, November 22, 2020

And the winner is... (Classics Club Spin #25)


...John Stuart Mill's Autobiography. Now I get to discover why starting Latin at age 13 was too late, too late! But I am looking forward to it.

Nowadays I probably would have just read this from Project Gutenberg, especially since this Kessinger reprint doesn't have any notes or anything, but since I have this print copy...

Time to put all those other books back on the shelf so I can find them in the future:

Did you get something good?

Friday, November 20, 2020

Classics Club Spin #25

It's time for a Classics Club spin again, number 25. I decided I didn't want to shuffle around those remaining books from my first Classics Club list one more time. In a moment of idleness a while back, I started assembling some categories of books that I might put on a second Classics Club list, and I made my list mostly from that.

After being unable to find Mary Wollstonecraft for the last spin, I decided I'd better have all the books in hand:

The Categories and the Books

Women Authors from the Library of America

I've read parts of all these books, but there's still good reading in them!

1.) Dawn Powell/Turn, Magic Wheel
2.) Eudora Welty/Delta Wedding
3.) Katharine Anne Porter/Pale Horse, Pale Rider
4.) Nella Larsen/Quicksand
5.) Willa Cather/One of Ours

One of Ours is actually from my current Classics Club list.

Chicago Classics

My home town has produced some classic literature. Most of the good Toronto books are perhaps not quite old enough to be considered classics yet.

6.) James T. Farrell/A World I Never Made
7.) Theodore Dreiser/Sister Carrie
8.) Richard Wright/Native Son
9.) Harry Mark Petrakis/A Dream of Kings
10.) Nelson Algren/The Man With The Golden Arm

James T. Farrell is better known for Studs Lonigan, which got the Library of America treatment, but that's grim and I didn't feel like rereading it just now. A World I Never Made is the first of the Danny O'Neill series. In my first list, I didn't allow rereads, but I've decided this time I will. If I haven't read a book since my 20s, well, it's like it's new all over again...Except for the Petrakis, these are all rereads.

Nineteenth Century Non-Fiction

11.) John Ruskin/Unto This Last
12.) Thomas Carlyle/Heroes and Hero-Worship
13.) Thomas de Quincey/The Lake Poets
14.) J. S. Mill/Autobiography
15.) James Austin-Leigh/A Memoir of Jane Austen

Non-Fiction from Deb's List

Clearly I was already thinking of adding some non-fiction to the new list, but then Deb assembled a list of non-fiction classics with help from the community. Why, I have some of those!

16.) Dee Brown/Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee
17.) Truman Capote/In Cold Blood
18.) Rene Descartes/Meditations and Discourse on Method
19.) R. L. Stevenson/Travels With A Donkey
20.) Barbara Tuchman/A Distant Mirror

Other potential categories that didn't show up this time were Russians, plays, and Trollope. Yet to come!

Which look good to you?

Thursday, November 19, 2020

David Copperfield

 "I will never desert Mr. Micawber!"

I decided to reread David Copperfield because--well, does one really need a reason to reread David Copperfield? But I've been thinking about rereading it recently because of the new movie version directed by Armando Ianucci, The Personal History of David Copperfield:

It's possible to have seen the movie by now, but it is challenging these days and I haven't. Dev Patel should be a good Copperfield; Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep seems pretty inspired; Peter Capaldi looks promising as Micawber in the clip, though maybe a little Whovian to me. Anyway not Malcolm-Tucker-ish. Capaldi does have to compete with W. C. Fields to be the definitive Micawber. Nevertheless what I'm really looking forward to is Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood, David's aunt. Some day, hopefully soon, I'll manage to see it.

We'll keep the plot summary simple: young David Copperfield is orphaned, he's sent off to be a child laborer, he runs away from that to his Aunt, he makes good, he marries the wrong girl, and finally he gets married to the right girl. You probably knew all that. It's a pretty good read...

A couple of things occurred to me. Maybe it's just because I have Vindication of The Rights of Women in my head, but just as I wondered if Austen knew that book, now I'm wondering if Dickens did, too. Not unlikely, though in googling I didn't find any particular indication. But Dora is educated to pre-Wollstonecraft specifications, with the expected results; Agnes, according to post-Wollstonecraft ideas. It's not that Dora is a bad person, just that she acts as she's been brought up to do.

Marriage, and marrying the right person, is the theme in this. Well, Dickens always has a bit of a message in his novels. Mrs. Strong says she nearly gave way to the 'first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart.' The words register with David who, at the time he hears them, is married to Dora. Dickens wants it to become a bit an ear-worm for us, but it doesn't, not entirely. Instead we remember, "I will never desert Mr. Micawber." Which fits the theme, of course. Emma Micawber's heart's first impulse was equally undisciplined, I guess, certainly her family thought so, but she disciplined her heart to follow Mr. Micawber. She gets rewarded for it in the end. And she's not the only undisciplined heart in the novel. (David, of course, Emily Peggotty, even Betsey Trotwood.) David, through the magic of the omnipotent Victorian novelist, gets to fix that initial error. Dora may be more lamented, but she goes the way of Bertha Rochester and Edward Casaubon. 

My edition includes the introduction G. K. Chesterton wrote for the Everyman's Library. Like all of the Chesterton introductions, it's contrary, but written with verve. He writes:

"The reader does still feel that David's marriage to Dora was a real marriage; and that his marriage to Agnes was nothing, a middle-aged compromise, a taking of the second-best, a sort of spiritualized and sublimated marriage of convenience."

I suspect no actual reader of Copperfield other than Chesterton ever thought anything like this. And Dickens doesn't want you to think this. If David's marriage to Dora feels more real than his marriage to Agnes that's because Dora comes across as a real person, and Agnes is the usual, too-good-to-be-true, Dickensian heroine. But David and Agnes are the ideal Dickensian couple, and we're meant to feel warm and fuzzy when they do get married. (And I did...)

I had some other thoughts but I'll stop for now.

David Copperfield was a late sub onto the field for a couple of other books (Decameron, Razor's Edge) but definitely qualifies for a couple of my challenges.

Did somebody just say it was supposed to be Novellas in November? Oy! Now you tell me!

Have you seen the movie? If you've read it, what did you think?

And...I will never desert Mr. Micawber!

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Les Murray's Dog Fox Field (#AusReadingMonth2020)


Dog Fox Field is a collection of poems by Les Murray that came out in 1990. Murray was born in 1938 and was by then a well-established poet. He died in April of last year, and was, until then, often named as a possible Nobel prize laureate. 

His poems are mostly in a rough-hewn formal verse; he likes, for instance, ballad meter:
So it's back to window shopping
on Aphrodite Street
for the apples are stacked and juicy
but some are death to eat.  [From 'The Fall of Aphrodite Street']

You can decide what that metaphor is about on your own.  

Sometimes his use of sound is quite over the top: [From 'On Removing Spiderweb']

Like summer silk its denier
but stickily, o ickilier
miffed bunny-blinder, silver tar,
crepe when cobbed,  crap when rubbed,...

There's more, but maybe that's enough about icky spiderwebs... 😉

As those quotes maybe show, he has a sense of humor; anyway, he does for me. He says the nicest thing about accordions I've ever heard anyone say: ['Accordion Music'] "it can conjure Paris up, or home, or unclench a chinstrap jaw/but it never sang for a nob's baton, or lured the boys to war." Though I just Googled accordion sonata, and naturally there are a few. So some nob somewhere once tried to tell an accordion what to do.

I think he's better at longer length; this volume has a number of quite good narrative poems. And, in fact, my favorite volume of his (I've not read that much) is Fredy Neptune, a novel in verse of 250 pages. Fredy (Friedrich) is the child of German immigrants to Australia and he manages to become involved in practically every major event in the first half of the 20th Century. He fights on both sides in WWI, witnesses the Armenian genocide, joins Lawrence of Arabia, meets Banjo Paterson in Egypt, goes to Hollywood, outwits the Nazis, etc., etc.

Historical events show up in this as well. One is in the voice of a shako-wearing soldier of Austria-Hungary: ['The Lieutenant of Horse Artillery'] "...the length of a desperate ride/for my Emperor and King, as our Empire died/with its dream of happy cultures dancing in a ring." I don't think anybody at the time quite thought Austria-Hungary was a multicultural paradise, but maybe in retrospect? Another was based on the story/legend of Aimée Dubucq de Rivéry, which was new to me, but fascinating, and made a good poem.

There are also rural, agricultural poems. Murray's background was rural--he lived much of his life in small town New South Wales--and a number of his poems reflect that. These kind of went past me. Well, I'm not much of a farmer. Still there was one in the voice of an older heifer whose milk has dried up, and is about to be killed, that was very poignant. ['The Cows on Killing Day'] It starts:
All me are standing on feed. The sky is shining.

All me have just been milked. Teats all tingling still
from that dry toothless sucking by the chilly mouths
that gasp loudly in in in, and never breathe out.

I had a thought about a certain generation of male poets that like formal structures but avoid mellifluousness, using harder consonants (g, k, t) and word-pairings that imply a glottal stop, as if the euphony of Tennyson or Swinburne were somehow suspicious. Les Murray fits in here. I'm also thinking of Ted Hughes (b. 1930) or Seamus Heaney (b. 1939). Paul Fussell in his Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (1965) bad mouths Tennyson for his euphoniousness and not his Victorian sentimentality, which kind of shocked me when I first read it. (As it turns out I'm mostly OK with both euphony and Victorian sentimentality.) But this is an AusReadingMonth post, and I don't feel like pulling a bunch of other books off the shelf, so you'll have to imagine the examples I might use...

My vague sense is that Les Murray became more crotchety and conservative as he got older. Not much sign of it in this. He thanks Paul Keating in a brief acknowledgements section. I thought this quite a good volume, and Les Murray is a poet worth knowing better.

Two short ones to close. A wise, but not very Japanese, haiku:

Politics and Art

Brutal policy,
like inferior art, knows
whose fault it all is.

And one of:  

Three Last Stanzas

Absolutely anything
is absolute to those
who see the poem in it.
Relegation is prose.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Susanna Clarke's Piranesi


I don't know about you, but I've been waiting for this book for what feels like a very long time. Well, it was 2004 when Susanna Clarke's previous (and first) novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell came out.

Piranesi is a name for the main character of the novel; the novel is told in the form of his diaries. It's clear something is going on that we as readers don't understand:


When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight years."

That's the opening of the novel, after a couple of epigraphs. The drama in the book comes from understanding why Piranesi writes in this odd voice, where he is, what this odd world is like, even who he is. It's nearly impossible to say anything without being spoiler-ish. So, first, the important question: if you loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, as I did, will you want to read Piranesi? I say, very definitely, yes. The two novels are quite different stylistically: Strange & Norrell was pretty maximalist, and this is nearly minimalist, but I thought Piranesi very good, and pleasingly different.

I'll try to be good, but after this, there may be spoilers...

We learn pretty quickly there may be only one other living person in this world. Piranesi refers to him as the Other. There are a number of skeletons, thirteen to be precise, and Piranesi refers to the person who might be reading his diaries as Sixteen. Where do the skeletons come from? Does Sixteen even exist and who might Sixteen be?

Piranesi sees the Other twice a week for no more than an hour at a time. The Other uses a diction much more contemporary than the odd formality of Piranesi. It's the Other who gave Piranesi his nickname; Piranesi doesn't really have a name for himself. (The Other makes up the name from Giovanni Piranesi, creator of the Carceri d'Invenzione, which are something like the halls our Piranesi inhabits.) The Other is another mystery in the novel, since he's so clearly not of the same world as Piranesi. When Piranesi needs a flashlight or new shoes, the Other provides them. But in the world that Piranesi inhabits, he's helpless. 

Piranesi finds bits of another diary, quite different from his own; it seems to refer to a different world with different events. Eventually two 'Sixteens' show up. The Other warns Piranesi to avoid them. One is a man, and eventually the Other doesn't seem particularly interested in him; the other is a woman, this is the one the Other is particularly concerned about.  Who are these two Sixteens? What is their relationship to the Other? Such are the questions.

[More spoiler-ish, but hopefully not completely spoiler-ish...]

Gradually we learn that the mention of eight years in the opening line is pretty horrific.

One of the things that's interesting about the novel is how it returns to the themes of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. In her earlier novel, the two magicians are investigating a world they only half understand; in Piranesi, there are likewise two individuals investigating something they don't understand. The two magicians/investigators have a complicated relationship in both novels. Piranesi's halls may be something like John Uskglass' faery domain, except there is no John Uskglass in this. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is historical, while this is set in the present, but there are otherwise definite parallels.

One of the two epigraphs to this novel was by C. S. Lewis, and there are other allusions to Lewis, most of which went past me, I admit. It's been a long time since I read The Chronicles of Narnia. On the other hand, I was totally up on the allusions to Doctor Who. But the other epigraph was by Laurence Arne-Sayles, who, as it turns out, is a character in the novel:

"People call me a philosopher or a scientist or an anthropologist. I am none of those things. I am an anamnesiologist. I study what has been forgotten. I divine what has disappeared utterly. I work with absences, with silences, with curious gaps between things. I am really more of a magician than anything else."

Except for a slight modernity to its tone--the use of the word anthropologist, say--this could easily have been written by Mr. Norrell. 

And I don't think I'll say anything else except, I liked it very much.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

#NonFicNov - My year in Non-Fiction


The opening week prompt is:

Your year in nonfiction: take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions - What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you've been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in nonfiction November?

Definitely the two best nonfiction reads for me were books I reread: (so I must like them, right?)

Brian Dillon's Essayism

Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael

Both of those are works of literary criticism, though Essayism has some memoir blended in. Without intending it, this does seem to have been a year reading literary criticism. Part of that was because of the Moby-Dick readalong. I blogged about The Cambridge Introduction to Melville which was also in that category. I read Delbanco's biography of Herman Melville at the very end of last year.

Two other works of literary criticism I didn't blog about but I do recommend: 

James Huneker's Egoists: A Book of Supermen. Huneker was a newspaperman, first in Philadelphia and then in New York, who died in 1921. He covered cultural issues: music, theater, literature. This volume is about writers of the time. The essay about Stendhal, whose diaries were just being published, I thought especially good. He also looks at Baudelaire, Huysmans, Ibsen, others. And, as the title might suggest, Nietzsche.

Vivian Gornick's The End of The Novel of Love. A collection of essays that had previously appeared, I assume, but I hadn't read any of them before. Good on individuals as different as Clover Adams and Grace Paley. She closes her essay on Willa Cather, "Today Jean Rhys seems dated, Virginia Woolf important, and Willa Cather wise." Which, though I'm not sure about Jean Rhys, otherwise struck me. The title essay was also very good.

A related, but not identical, category: author's memoirs. I read and blogged about Isaac Bashevis Singer's book on his early years in Poland, In My Father's Court. I thought it was very good. I also read his memoir of his first years in New York City, Love and Exile. I liked it, but I didn't find it quite as interesting.

I also read Huneker's autobiography, Steeplejack. Definitely read his criticism first. 

Two classic works on women's issues:

Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own

Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Not much history this year, which surprised me. I read Daisy Dunn's joint biography of the two Plinys, Shadow of Vesuvius. It was good, but I didn't blog about it. Some other classical history, as well.

I mostly avoided contemporary issues at book length--I couldn't much bear it. I did read Zadie Smith's short book of Covid essays, Intimations because I read pretty much everything of hers, but my favorite essay in the collection was the one that had the least to do with what's going on now. I also read Sarah Burns' book The Central Park Five. Not a brilliant book, but a good introduction to the facts. What a miscarriage of justice. Though the man in the White House (as of today, but hopefully not much longer) still doesn't acknowledge it, or his part in it.

The complete collection of my nonfiction posts for this year can be found here.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Sunday Salon: November Challenges

Why are all the fun book challenges in November?! It's not fair!

Of course, this isn't really true, but there are a lot of them. In alphabetical order, there's:



Margaret Atwood Reading Month

Non-Fiction in November

Novellas in November

And we're already in the middle of Witch Week

Now if Margaret Atwood would move to Australia, write a short non-fiction book in German about warlocks and have it translated, and do it by the end of the week, I would be all set!

Short of that...I've got two books that I read in October and should write posts for soon. James Baldwin's novella about homosexual life in Paris, Giovanni's Room, and John Szwed's biography of Sun Ra, Space Is The Place.

Other things I'm thinking about that fit one or more categories:

Susanna Clarke's Piranesi
Les Murray's Dog Fox Field
Ingeborg Bachman's Malina
Jenny Erpenbeck's The End of Days
Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye
Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus

This post is mostly to help organize myself, but maybe it helps you, too...

Saturday, October 31, 2020

A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft is a polemical work; it tries to convince. Nowadays if you have a non-zero chance of reading the book, you will already agree with the argument it's trying to make: that women should be given a good education, the equivalent of anything given to men; that both the women themselves and society at large will be better off for women having a good education; and that anyone educated to be silly and manipulative, well, will be silly and manipulative.

"Contending for the rights of women, my main argument is built on this simple premise, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice."

Maybe in 1792 there were people who might read this book and learn from it. It's not that there aren't people now who could to stand to learn these things--I could name a few--but they won't be reading this book. Alas.

I enjoyed it. It's always flattering to be told things you already believed are in fact true. 😉 

Wollstonecraft has a few targets in writing this. There's a couple of Scottish moralists that I had to look up to find out who they were: Dr. John Gregory, James Fordyce. I suspect nobody would read them now except for Mary Wollstonecraft. The big target--and the one she spends most of her firepower on--is Rousseau. Well, Rousseau's idea of female education, given at the end of Émile is pretty awful, and Rousseau is a bit weird about women in general--cf. The Confessions, fascinating though that work may be--or in his relationship with Thérèse Levasseur. Wollstonecraft gets the better of this argument by far. 

I learned that the first English translation of Émile is titled Emilius, and it's the version Wollstonecraft quotes. Sophie becomes Sophia. 

At several points I thought Jane Austen knows this book well. Wikipedia tells me Austen doesn't ever mention Wollstonecraft, but it seems I'm not the only person to have decided Austen liked the book.

A few quotes:

"I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour."

"Happy is it when people have the cares of life to struggle with; for these struggles prevent their becoming a prey to enervating vices, merely from idleness."

"Strength of body, and that character of countenance, which the French term a physionomie, women do not acquire before thirty, any more than men."

"From the respect paid to property flow, as from a poisoned fountain, most of the evils and vices which render this world such a dreary scene to the contemplative mind."

"I know not what is wanted to render this the happiest as well as the most respectable situation in the world, but a taste for literature, to throw a little variety and interest into social converse, and some superfluous money to give to the needy, and to buy books."

This post has been in draft mode for a very long time now. (It was the last spin book & I finished the book on time.) There's a print copy (a Penguin) somewhere in the house, but I couldn't find it when I was about to start reading the book, so I grabbed a copy from Project Gutenberg. I finished it on the eReader. I started writing this post, but then thought I should read the introduction before posting.

I still haven't found the Penguin so I'm just publishing this post anyway. I'm sorry to report this is the sort of house where books can get lost among their brethren and then are impossible to find... 


Thursday, October 29, 2020

A Suitable Boy

"'You too will marry a boy that I choose,' said Mrs. Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter." 

A Suitable Boy is Vikram Seth's massive novel (1474 pages in my edition) about life in India in the early 1950s. It first came out in 1993. 

With that many pages there are, of course, a couple of interlocking plots. They're spread out across four interrelated families. 

The one that gives the novel its title is Lata Mehra's search--or maybe more her mother's search on Lata's behalf--for a husband. Lata's family is Hindu, of the Khatri (a merchant) caste, middle-class, but after the death of her father, a bit impoverished. Lata herself is a college student majoring in English. There are three main candidates. In order of appearance: Kabir Durrani, a fellow student of Lata's who's a Muslim; Lata's brother-in-law, Amit Chatterji, a well-known poet in English, and a Brahmin of a well-to-do family; and Haresh Khanna, an up-and-coming manager in the shoe industry, of the right caste. This has the fun of a rom-com plot, with various parties scheming for and against, while Lata tries to decide. It ends in a marriage, and probably even the right one. (Though, if you've read it, did you think so?)

Another plot is political: Lata's older sister married Pran Kapoor. Pran's father Mahesh is a member of the Congress party and at the start, the Minister of Revenue for the (imaginary) state of Purva Pradesh. Mahesh Kapoor is the author of an important land reform bill that has only just been passed, but is still under legal challenge when the first national election since Partition and the independence of India is taking place. There are machinations between wings of the Congress party that catch up Minister Kapoor.

The third (the last major, but not entirely the last) subplot involves Maan Kapoor, Minister Kapoor's other son, who is living a dissipated life and has fallen in love with an older (Muslim) singer of ghazals, Saeed Bai. Maan's best friends are the twins Firoz and Imtiaz Khan; Saeed Bai has other connections to the Khans, a Muslim family.

The Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjis, and the Khans. Whew. Got all that?

At fifteen hundred pages with a marriage plot, it's a clear nod to Victorian triple-deckers; and, of the various attempts to recreate a Victorian novel in modern times, I think it's a pretty good one, better than, say, The Bonfire of the Vanities or Palliser's The Quincunx. By setting it in the 50s, in India, Seth has got more opportunities for drama in his marriage plot than a contemporary North American story. (Which might run--"Should we get married?"/"Yes, let's."--and our story is done.)

The space allows Seth to go full Dickens on us, looking at classes from the well-to-do urban sophisticates, like the Chatterjis, to poor, rural peasants, though I did think he was more convincing with the former. Politics are important. For the most part he gives all the good lines to the partisans he likes: secular, liberal. Hindu nationalists, in particular, come across as villains. Well, we knew what Dickens' party line was, too. 

It's pretty enjoyable. Is it a masterpiece? Mmm, possibly not. 

Seth is pretty good about not telling us what to think most of the way through. That breaks down a bit at the end, though. There are more authorial intrusions like:

'The events involved Maan; and as a result of them the family was never the same again.' [1262]

'...the poor ignorant grieving fool...' [1332]

I don't think this added. 

Also Seth's pretty easy on his characters, probably too much so. Some bad things happen: Muslim-Hindu riots, people crushed by crowding at a religious ceremony. But the main characters are snatched from danger by the authorial hand. Now Tolstoy likes his characters; Dickens likes his characters. Still Prince Andrei dies, Anna dies, Little Nell dies, Sydney Carton is actually guillotined. If you're writing a vast social novel larger than a romantic comedy, something bad probably needs to happen to at least one character. In A Suitable Boy, the fairly minor character Rasheed, Maan's Urdu teacher dies, but 1.) he is minor, 2.) the moment of his death is avoided, and 3.) the madness that leads to his suicide didn't really convince. 

Still, I don't want to leave you with bad thoughts about the book. It entertains. It's funny, informative, engaging, serious where it needs to be. This is the second time I've read it. The first time was twenty-five years ago when it was fairly new. It's interesting the things I remembered: I had pretty good recall of the rom-com plot, and I remembered the hilarious banter of the Chatterjis, who are always spouting off in couplets. Though the best (😉 ) bit of poetry is this triolet from Mr. Nowrojee, the founder of the Brahmpur Literary Society:

Fate snatched away sweet Toru Dutt
   At the soft age of twenty-two.
The casuarina tree was cut.
Fate snatched away sweet Toru Dutt
No bulbuls haunt its branches but
   Her poems still haunt me and you.
Fate snatched away sweet Toru Dutt
   At the soft age of twenty-two.

This gives Twain's 'Ode To Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd' a run for its money.

Also I wondered, how did we read things like this back in the day? It was 1995 when I first read this, and when I looked back, I see it I read it on an airplane or in a hotel room in Dubai (where I was working.) So I was particularly unable to look anything up. But Seth has really done his homework, though he wears his learning lightly. But it's only now I can plunder Wikipedia and learn about the Khatri caste, co-respondent shoes, A. L. A Schechter Poultry Corp vs United States, or, indeed, that Toru Dutt was an actual poet who died at, well, twenty-one, in fact. (The latter in particular was a surprise. With a name like that, I assumed she was made up.) Did I need to know these things to enjoy the novel the first time? Clearly not. Do you read books with a tablet in reach to look things up? I'm not 100% sure that's actually an advantage but I do now. And it's interesting to discover things.

I reread it because there's a new mini-series version, directed by Mira Nair. It's already been shown on the BBC, and it was the closing night film at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Well, the film festival was challenging this year. We had thoughts about seeing it, but I hadn't finished rereading the novel and we would have had to stream six hours of video in a twelve-hour window, which is a little too much binging for us. But I do hope to see it soon. It looks like fun:

This is now a ridiculously long post, but well, it's a long book, too...

Monday, October 19, 2020

Stevie Smith


I'm suffering the usual difficulty with saying much about poetry...well, umm, among many, I liked this one:

Sunt Leones

The lions who ate the Christians on the sands of the arena
By indulging native appetites played what has now been seen a
Not entirely negligible part
In consolidating at the very start
The position of the Early Christian Church.
Initiatory rites are always bloody
And the lions, it appears
From contemporary art, made a study
Of dyeing Coliseum sands a ruddy
Liturgically sacrificial hue
And if the Christians felt a little blue --
Well people being eaten often do.
Theirs was the death, and theirs the crown undying
A state of things which must be satisfying.
My point which up to this has been obscured
Is that it was the lions who procured
By chewing up blood gristle flesh and bone
The martyrdoms on which the church had grown.
I only write this poem because I thought it rather looked
As if the part the lions played was being overlooked.
By lions' jaws great benefits and blessings were begotten
And so our debt to Lionhood must never be forgotten.

That opening rhyme would have made Ogden Nash happy, and I read where Nash wrote an introduction for one of Stevie Smith's later books. That probably implies at the time Ogden Nash was more famous and Stevie Smith less; now I suspect that's reversed. Anyway, there's some similarities, but Stevie Smith is way darker.

The introduction to my edition, by James MacGibbon, suggests that Stevie Smith was a believer, though not a very orthodox one. You might guess that from this poem...

I'd read a few Stevie Smith poems before this, but not many, and this was a nice and generous selection. (280 pages). She died in 1971. I haven't read the biography, nor seen the play made from it. This edition includes some of Stevie Smith's drawings. 

The one on the cover is by her as well.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Ed McBain's Cop Hater (#1956Club)


Cop Hater is the first of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series of police procedurals. Somebody is killing cops: first Detective Mike Reardon is shot outside his house on his way to the precinct; then his partner David Foster is killed. The fact that the two were partners results in the investigation pursuing their previous arrests, particularly any recently out of jail, but when a third detective Hank Bush is killed and he doesn't have any particular connection to the first two, maybe there's just somebody out there who hates cops.

I thought this was nicely setup. We see just enough of Mike Reardon to humanize him before he's killed; Steve Carella and Bush are beat detectives who catch the case; they crack wise with the homicide detectives on the scene before they turn the body over and realize it's their colleague who's been killed. McBain's a pro with a crisp prose style. All that's in the first fourteen pages.

My edition is a reprint with an introduction by McBain from 1989. McBain, under his legal, though not birth name, of Evan Hunter, was already a successful author: he'd written Blackboard Jungle, the basis of the 1955 movie. The introduction is fun. McBain touts himself as the originator of the police procedural. Perhaps that's not perfectly true--John Creasey/J. J. Marric's first Gideon novel came out the year before--but it's close to true in any case, and McBain envisioned from the start a sort of collective hero, with different detectives of the 87th Precinct taking the lead in different cases, in different novels, which is pretty unique. He talks about the research he did to start the series, pestering actual New York City cops before deciding--with delight--he would just make up the city of Isola where the series takes place. 

McBain's grittier than the cozies and even most of the PI novels that preceded him; still it's not giving much away to say that the culprit is neither some recent release from the state pen, nor (though Savage the newspaperman promotes this theory) some cop-hating gang member. Those are both red herrings and the solution is more mystery-novel-ish than either of those possibilities. I've read 8 or 10 out of the 55 in the series and I'd say that's generally true of McBain.

But no spoilers. I wish I could say the same of Wikipedia, though. I might have expected (and didn't read until I finished the novel) that the article on the book would include spoilers; I was a little dismayed though that the general article on the 87th Precinct series, which I did look at halfway through, gave away the solution. Grr. Still it was fun, even if I did know--before I was supposed to--whodunnit. 

It was also fun to see the series at the start. Cotton Hawes and Meyer Meyer don't feature in this one but Steve Carella does; he goes on to appear in a number of them. We see him courting Teddy and the marriage is planned, but hasn't yet taken place, before the end of the book. 

It's the week of #1956Club! Thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Thinking about the #1956Club

Starting in under a week is 1956 Club, this fall's edition of the club in which we all read books from the given year, hosted by Kaggsy & Simon. Naturally the first thing to do is to heap up a pile o' books...

These are the ones I might be likely to read and which I haven't read...

Nelson Algren/A Walk On The Wild Side 

Ed McBain/Cop Hater

James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room

Allen Ginsburg/Howl and Other Poems

-it's possible I've read all the poems from Howl, but I'm not sure. But after all, I've been so tormented by seeing the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked...I forget about the book.

These books are all pretty short, so there's even a chance I'll read them all. (Well, the 1956 part of the bottom two books is short.) I've also got an unread copy of Henry Miller's The Devil In Paradise around here, which is also short, but I'm less likely to read that.

1956 was a good year for fluffy books which I own and have already read:


Ian Fleming's Diamonds Are Forever

Ross Macdonald's The Barbarous Coast

Ellery Queen's Inspector Queen's Own Case

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Gilded Lily

There's also Patricia Wentworth's The Fingerprint, but she was shy and couldn't be found for the photo op. I haven't read the Poirot of 1956, Dead Man's Folly, but I don't own it and would have to go find a copy. The Barbarous Coast is probably the best of those--Ross Macdonald is so good one hates to quite call him fluffy--but if I reread one, it's likely to be the Ellery Queen, which I read so long ago I don't remember it at all. Rereading a mystery you don't remember, why it's like a fresh new mystery all over again!

I've now been blogging long enough--or 1956 was so good a year--that there are actually two books in my back catalog that I've blogged about before. The better book of these is Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, a very good book indeed, I thought.

The better post, though, is for Robert Heinlein's Time for the Stars, one of his juveniles, which could have been up there on the fluffy shelf. But pretty entertaining. Jet-powered helicopters plus dinosaurs. And still our hero fights with a stick...

If I decide to reread and post about books I've read before, the top of that list would be Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond, which is so good. I've been poring over other people's posts of preparation--I just changed 'reading' to 'poring over' to compound that alliteration--and I haven't seen anybody mention Kenneth Stampp's book on slavery, The Peculiar Institution, which I remember as fascinating. The first volume of Anthony Burgess' Malaysia trilogy, Time for a Tiger, is from 1956, and I liked the trilogy, but then I'd probably feel I should reread the whole trilogy, and what I really want to reread of his is Earthly Powers. The first volume of Naguib Mahfouz' wonderful Cairo Trilogy, Palace Walk, is from 1956. Long Day's Journey Into Night. There's two Rex Stouts (Three Witnesses, Might As Well Be Dead) from that year, which could have been in the picture above. Etc., etc. The more I look the more I think I've had very good reading out of 1956.

And I'm looking for that to continue! Thanks to Kaggsy and Simon for hosting!

Sunday, September 27, 2020

John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra


Somebody's due for a great fall, and Humpty is just glad it isn't him...

In the epigraph to his debut novel Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara quotes Somerset Maugham's version of an old story involving Death. Death runs into a servant in the morning market at Baghdad; the servant recognizes Death, and begs assistance of his master to flee as far he can, and his master gives him money and a horse. When Death is asked that afternoon, Why did you frighten the servant if you didn't mean to take him? Death answers, I didn't intend to frighten him. I was just surprised to see him in Baghdad, since he and I have an appointment in Samarra tonight. (127 km according to Google Maps.)

An appointment in Samarra. So you suspect from the start it's not going to end well for somebody, and it doesn't. 

Based on the epigraph, this is not very, but a bit, spoilerish...

That somebody is Julian English. 

The story takes place in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a stand-in for John O'Hara's hometown of Pottsville. (Anthracite coal country northwest of Philadelphia.) Julian is the son of the local society doctor, and ought to be well enough off, but his car dealership's sales are a little soft. It's Christmas, Hoover's the president, and the Great Depression has started. He's married to Caroline, whom he's known since they were children, and it seems a good marriage; certainly she's in love with him, though she can see his flaws.

What are those flaws? The root of them is the excess consumption of alcohol. 

Too much alcohol--or is it something more fundamental?--leads Julian to do three bad things during the course of the novel. He throws a drink in Harry Reilly's face; he has a sexual rendezvous with Helene Holman; he gets into a fistfight with Froggy Ogden. He owes Reilly money and is worried Reilly may sleeping with his wife; Holman, a local torch singer, is the mistress of the town's gangster/bootlegger; Ogden is a vet who lost one arm in the Great War and can hardly fight back. In the end? Julian has that appointment in Samarra.

The novel was famous for its scandalousness when it came out. Husbands and wives have sex, and sometimes enjoy it, even the wives. Well, that may have been news in fiction in 1934, but less so now.

There's a self-destructive streak in Julian that's not explained. Is Julian's alcoholism cause or result of that self-destructive streak? I'm not certain, and not certain that we're meant to know. But while Julian is the main focus, the novel doesn't limit itself to him; it's a short novel (225 pages in my edition) and yet it presents a substantial cross-section of Gibbsville society. Which is both impressive and also good: I found Julian's company a bit of a cross to bear.

So I'm not entirely sure what I thought. Self-destructive alcoholics are hard to take, in fiction as in life. Comparing this to Malcolm Lowry's Under The Volcano, I'd say Geoffrey Firmin is the more convincing drunk. Firmin is further along the road to dissolution than Julian; Firmin's state of confused mind is presented in more convincing detail; everything Julian does seems contingent, it seems like he could as easily have done something else, so why did he have to die? We see occasional hints of engagement with the world in Geoffrey Firmin, of the man he once was, but his thoughts in the present mostly revolve around how to find that next drink. Firmin's story had the inevitability of tragedy; Julian's was more like an accident.

The other curious comparison is to Updike. The edition I got from the library has an introduction by Charles McGrath, who is at pains to tell us that Updike valued O'Hara very highly. In an introduction this is supposed to make you more enthused to read the coming book than you were before, but I'm afraid the fact that Updike (the 'penis with a thesaurus'*) liked it had the opposite effect on me. I still liked the O'Hara, though, despite that... 😉  and not just because the prose was un-Updikean. But it's clear that Updike had read this novel: at one point Julian thinks about escaping his situation, hops in a car and drives off only to return to town. Was that Julian English or Rabbit Angstrom? Rabbit, too, is a unsuccessful salesman, living in a smallish Pennsylvania town, who decides he can't take it any more and drives off only to return. Rabbit drives further than Julian, but otherwise... 

The novel is on that hundred-best list of Modern Library 20th century novels, problematic as that list was. I'm glad to have read it, even if I'm not entirely convinced by Julian English at the center of it. DolceBelezza and WutheringExpectations were or are also currently reading it. 

*David Foster Wallace is responsible for labeling Updike the 'penis with a thesaurus.' It comes from his review of one of Updike's lesser novels Towards the End of Time, and he attributes the comment to an unnamed female reader of literary fiction under the age of 40. If she exists, she's become very famous, anonymously. Perhaps it's not entirely deserved, but I know I'm not the only one who can't now think of Updike without thinking of that characterization.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Two by Patricia Moyes (#20BooksOfSummer)


Finishing off my books of summer, though these actually got read a while ago...

Both feature Inspector Henry Tibbett of Scotland Yard, Moyes' regular detective. He's famous because he has a nose for solutions.

Falling Star

The first one I read was the earlier (1964). Bob Meakin is an aging star with some enemies and a tendency to womanize. You know from the moment he appears he's going to be the first victim: he falls in front of a subway train in the course of a movie shoot, possibly accidentally, though of course not.

The fun thing about this one, at least for a while, was the narrator, Anthony Croombe-Peters or 'Pudge.' Moyes' novels are usually told in the third person, but in this one Pudge tells the story. He's the son of a rich lord with some money of his own and he's dragooned into financing a movie by an old school friend with a script. Except Pudge takes his job seriously: he's fastidious about cash flow and is a bit prissy about the bohemian carryings-on around him. He's pretty funny.


"...if there's one thing I hate, it's the sort of book in which characters don't go to the police when they've no earthly reason for not doing so."

(Which is Cadogan in Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop, and of course it's prelude to Cadogan and Fen not going to the police themselves.) It's true here, too, and Pudge doesn't go to the police when he ought to. He was so determined about not going to the police, I began to wonder if we were going to have the Roger Ackroyd solution. Which the novel does flirt with, and after one particularly Bozo-ish move by Pudge I was even rooting for, but no. Anyway, while some of the suspense was generated by Pudge being more stupid than he ought to have been, it was still fun.

Also, while one ought not complain about the reasonableness of murder methods in cozies, the two in this were particularly silly.

Murder Fantastical

Even better, though, was Murder Fantastical (1967). George Manciple, the eldest male of the Manciple family, owns a decaying country estate in the town of Cregwall. Raymond Mason is a London bookmaker, now attempting to climb the social ladder, and he desperately wants to buy Cregwall Grange. He's already engaged in some shenanigans to drive Manciple and his wife out, but then he's shot dead on the Manciples' driveway in a way that looks impossible. A country house murder.

It was the wacky Manciples that made this one for me. There's George and his wife, but various others as well. Each one of them has their own eccentricity--as well as a reason not to lose the house, or to keep George from losing the house. Raymond Mason's son is in the picture, spouting Marxist nonsense, and amusingly at odds with his late capitalist and social-climbing father. Potential murderers abound.

Is there the possibility of a romance? There is.

It all gets resolved at a comical church jumble. 

If Falling Star played with being The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, then this one nodded to "The Problem of Thor Bridge," but wasn't quite it either. The solution here was both surprising and amusing.

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.