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.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Churchill's Novel

Churchill in 1895.
Not yet the bulldog
he became later.
Did you know there were two Winston Churchills? I didn't until recently. I was reading Mencken's A Book of Prefaces (1917) and he kept talking about Winston Churchill as a well-known American novelist. This threw me off. In the usual Mencken way, he referred to Churchill dismissively, as kind of a hack, though maybe not the worst hack. Really? I thought. Churchill? 

I knew Churchill's mother was American, but still this seemed odd. Some googling later and I realized there was an American Winston Churchill (1871-1947) who wrote a bunch of novels and was once upon a time more famous, and the Winston S. Churchill we all know wrote one novel, a Ruritanian romance, in 1897.

I'm a sucker for Ruritanian romances and Project Gutenberg was there for me.

In Savrola, A Tale of the Revolution in Laurania, General Antonio Molara is well on his way to becoming president for life. Five years earlier there was a revolution; Molara led it and seized power. Molara has no real intention of going away. But the country is growing restive and demands the restoration of elections. Molara agrees, but cuts the voter rolls in half, figuring if he can get rid of the wrong sort of voter he can still win an election. (Where have I heard that sort of thing?)

The Reform Committee comes to the presidential palace to register a formal protest but are dismissed with nothing. Savrola is the leader of the Reform Committee. A magnetic figure, with a Europe-wide reputation, Molara needs to know just how close Savrola is to the people who are ready to pick up guns. Arresting Savrola would be bad publicity, possibly dangerous. He sends his wife Lucile, beautiful and lively, to flirt with Savrola and pick up what information she can. Just how far does Molara intend for his wife to go? Lucile assumes it's just to talk to the man.

Savrola knows who the men with the guns are--Strelitz is just across the border with his rebel troops itching to return--but he would prefer a more peaceful change of power. Lucile learns little, though, and returns impressed with Savrola. 

Events intervene.

Laurania is somewhere on the Mediterranean; the names are mostly Spanish-sounding or Italian. The country has a colony on the east coast of Africa, reachable only via the Suez Canal. A crisis precipitated by the U.K. means that the navy has to steam off to solve that. The navy is loyal to Molara; nobody's sure about the army. With the navy leaving, Strelitz crosses the border, and the revolution, against Savrola's wishes, begins. 

Churchill writes well about the house-to-house fighting in the capital; the siege of the palace is well-handled, I thought. Well, he was a war correspondent at the time. The politics are reasonably well thought out. The romance part of it was OK, but not as good. You can see the outlines of the triangle Molara/Lucile/Savrola in my description of the setup, but there wasn't much surprise there. The final ending of the revolution owed more to realism than romance. Anthony Hope (The Prisoner of Zenda, the original Ruritanian romance) has nothing to worry about. At the same time the politics showed nothing of the sophistication found in that novel set in Costaguana

Ah, well. Wikipedia tells me that Churchill wrote in a volume of his autobiography, "I have consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it." He was doing himself a disservice--it's better than that. If you like the Ruritanian, Graustarkian, Orsinian, Fenwickian sort of story, the Lauranian isn't a bad addition.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Classics Club Spin #24

It's time for a new Classics Club spin. Oh, dear. I have neither finished my last one, nor given up on it--well, it was Plutarch's Lives and it was 1300 pages. I figured I could allow myself a bit of time. I've made more progress and I really should blog about it some more, but I couldn't see posting for every pair of lives or anything like that. It invites reading in bursts.

So I'm both prepared but also cautious about a new spin. Here's twenty remaining from my Classics Club list. There will be no super-long choices in this...

1.) James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room
2.) James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain
3.) Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh
4.) Willa Cather's A Lost Lady
5.) Willa Cather's One of Ours
6.) Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield
7.) Thomas Hardy's Wessex Tales
8.) W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge
9.) Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar
10.) Robert Louis Stevenson's The Black Arrow
11.) Virginia Woolf's The Waves
12.) Balzac's Cousin Bette
13.) Henry James' The Wings of the Dove
14.) Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
15.) Henryk Sienkewicz' Quo Vadis
16.) Jules Verne's Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under The Sea
17.) James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son
18.) Mary Wollstonecraft's The Vindication of the Rights of Women
19.) George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara
20.) Sir Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris

I suspect The Wings of the Dove would be the challenging one in there and is long enough! Which look good to you?

And the winner is...#18! Mary Wollstonecraft's The Vindication of the Rights of Women. It's short!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Brandes on Nietzsche

After finishing Henrik Pontoppidan's Lucky Per, I was wondering how well-known Nietzsche was in Scandinavia, and when. The main events of Pontoppidan's novel take place in the 1880s; there's a lot of Nietzschean-sounding language, though no actual reference to Nietzsche; was that anachronistic? For other reasons I had a bunch of Project Gutenberg books by Georg Brandes already on my eReader. (Post on James Huneker coming maybe some day?) One of them was Brandes' short book on Nietzsche.

Brandes was a well-known Danish critic in his day. He died at the age of 85 in 1927. He wrote mostly in Danish, but had a European reputation and his works were rapidly translated into other languages, including English. He was Jewish. The introduction to Lucky Per told me that the Dr. Nathan of that novel was a stand-in for Dr. Brandes, a not entirely flattering portrait Brandes took in good humor anyway. (Per calls him an ineffectual aesthete at some point, but perhaps Per is not entirely to be trusted.)

This book consists of three essays written on Nietzsche at different times, the earliest in 1889, just after Nietzsche's embracing the horse and descending into madness; the last in 1900, just after he died. They're sensible, I thought, taking Nietzsche seriously, but not completely reverently. He chastises Nietzsche for his attitude on women, preferring Mill. He emphasizes Nietzsche's opposition to anti-Semitism. There are better introductory works on Nietzsche now, though.

The most interesting part of the book were the letters between Brandes and Nietzsche. Nietzsche had his publishers send copies to Brandes of two of his books in the hope that this prominent European intellectual would do something with them. Brandes ignores the first couple (Beyond Good and Evil and Human, All Too Human) but then reads the third, The Genealogy of Morals. He writes a letter to Nietzsche apologizing for ignoring his earlier books, explaining he gets so many...But now he plans to read them and say something. This is the opening letter between them in November of 1887.

Nietzsche for us is Nietzsche, i.e., terrifying, one of the unscalable mountains of philosophy, but in 1887, even though he'd written a good deal of his major work, he's still pretty much a nobody, and he's charmingly thrilled and deferential that such a luminary as Brandes is reading him. Now that's reversed. My spell-checker is perfectly happy with Nietzsche as a word. Brandes is underlined everywhere. So fleeting is fame.

And Brandes does take Nietzsche seriously. In the spring of 1888, Brandes gives a two-lecture series on Nietzsche in Copenhagen; the first was poorly attended, "since no one knew who and what you are", and Brandes apologizes for that; but his first lecture got a favorable notice in the newspaper and so the second was better attended. Nietzsche writes from Turin, "I am so relieved, so strengthened, in such good humor...Have I not the good north winds to thank for it, the north winds which do not always come from the Alps?--they come now and then even from Copenhagen!"

The last of the letters is a postcard from Turin, one of the so-called Wahnzettel, the madness letters, written after Nietzsche's breakdown. He signs it 'The Crucified.'

Anyway, that more or less answered my question. Per almost certainly would not have read Nietzsche at the time he was saying rather Nietzschean things. So you have to just assume it was in the air. But the question usefully got me to read the book...

Some more quotes (all from Brandes' letters to Nietzsche):

"There is a writer who would interest you, if only he were translated: Søren Kierkegaard."
  --Letter of Jan. 11, 1888 (Ha! I can just imagine.)

"I am not an intruder by nature, so little in fact that I lead an almost isolated life, am indeed loth to write letters and, like all authors, loth to write at all."
  --Letter of Apr. 3, 1888 (Amusing, though a bit disingenuous.)

"In my early days I was passionately polemical, now I can only expound; silence is my only weapon of offence."
  --Letter of Nov. 23, 1888