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...