Friday, July 12, 2024

James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (#ParisInJuly, #ClassicsClub)

"For shame! For shame! That I should be so abruptly, so hideously entangled with a boy."

David is an American expatriate, living in the south of France as the novel starts. "I may be drunk by morning but that will not do any good. I shall take the train to Paris anyway." Why? That next morning Giovanni will die by the guillotine. (The 'knife', as David thinks of it.)

The story is told as flashbacks. That affair with Joey back in the U.S. Cadging money from Jacques, an older homosexual, who indulges him. David denies he's gay, but still hangs around the gay bars in Paris, and Jacques' attitude is a knowing, well, we'll see.

There's Hella, to whom David proposes, but who goes off travelling in Spain for months to decide what she thinks. By the time she decides yes, David is 'entangled 'with Giovanni, both living in Giovanni's tiny room.

Guilliaume, the last of an aristocratic family, runs the gay bar where Giovanni is a bartender, and is where David and Giovanni meet. Guillaume has unrealized designs on his attractive bartender, but in the meanwhile, a good-looking bartender is good for business.

David hooks up with Sue, out of despair, more than love, more even than interest.

It's a pretty great novel.

"'Love him', said Jacques, with vehemence, 'love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?'"

But David can't just let himself do that. And Jacques hadn't been able to take his own advice earlier, when he had the chance. Now Jacques 'loans' money to attractive young men. In hopes of something.

The novel comes out in 1956, and represents that time in Paris and the U.S. David has absorbed existing homophobia and applied it to himself, but it's also true that even if hadn't, even if he was perfectly OK with his own attraction to boys, it would be impossible to live the ordinary life he'd like--home, yard, kids--and be with the sort of person he loves.

And the publishing history of the book a bit tells the same story. It was Baldwin's second novel. His first, Go Tell It On The Mountain, had been a success as had his other literary efforts, a play, essays. But Knopf, his publisher, refuses to publish this one. It's for your own good, they say. And while David is white, and from an upper middle-class background, so clearly not Baldwin himself, it is also clear that Baldwin is quite believably familiar with the homosexual milieu in Paris in the 50s. It came out with Dial instead, at that time a bit edgier a press.

I read the novel in 2020 for the 1956 Club, but didn't manage to blog about it then. I'd put it on my Classics Club list as well. It's one you likely enough know, and I'm not sure I'm adding much here, other than to say that while it's tragic, it is also a masterpiece. 

And, well, it's now Paris in July hosted by Emma at Words and Peace:

I hope to get another book read for Paris in July, something a bit less well-known.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Josef Škvorecky's The End of Lieutenant Boruvka (#mystery, #europe)

"In the few works of fiction written so far by Czech authors about the events of the year 1968 and their consequences, the heroes have inevitably been intellectuals. In this collection of crime stories, however, I have tried to look at some of the causes and results of that bust-up of Marxism through the eyes of a simple man."

The End of Lieutenant Boruvka is the third of Škvorecky's four books about Boruvka, the Prague homicide detective. It came out in 1975 in Czech, and was translated into English by Paul Wilson in 1989. That quote is from Škvorecky's introduction.

The book contains five stories set in the years 1967-1969. Lieutenant Boruvka is melancholic as a rule, and never more sad than when he solves a case. The earlier books were nevertheless pretty funny. This one, set around the years of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, is not without humour, but distinctly darker.

In the first story, 'Miss Peskova Regrets', a club dancer, who may occasionally engage in a little light prostitution, is found dead in her apartment, asphyxiated when the gas on her stove is no longer lit. Accident? Suicide? Of course not.

'Strange Archaeology': Years before Boruvka was a homicide lieutenant, he was a lowly investigator in the Missing Persons department. His first case was the disappearance of Kvetuse Rerichova. Rerichova had taken all her money out of her account, packed up all her clothing, and told her mother she was going away for the weekend. She never came back.

Rerechova's father and brother had escaped to New York earlier, and Boruvka wraps the case up as a successful escape to the West. His work is so clean he's promoted for it. Then years later a body's found while excavating for new construction. Rerechova? Yes.

In 'Ornaments in the Grass' two sixteen-year-old girls are found gunned down in a meadow by a sub-machine gun. Various military units had been engaged in maneuvers in the area and the girls had been flirting with the soldiers. Surely one of them had to do it, right?

The invasion (August 20-21 of 1968) occurs between the third and fourth stories. There's personnel changes in the office. Major Kautsky, Boruvka's boss's boss, who serves the usual function in such stories of obstruction and illogical requests, turns out to be a hero in the aftermath, and is now in jail himself. Boruvka is saddled with a new sergeant, Pudil, a zealous communist and an anti-semite.

In the fourth story 'Humbug', a delivery driver Krasa for a candy company is banged over the head with a wrench. It turns out Krasa's last name had once been Schoenfeld and he'd served time for thinking about fleeing the country. Pudil is happy to label the victim as a bourgeois Jew and not look very deep.

The final story is 'Pirates'. A spy for the secret police is living in an apartment and clearly spying on one of his neighbours. Then he's murdered. Which of the neighbours was he actually spying on and which one did it?

In the first four cases, Boruvka has pretty clearly determined the murderer, but is not allowed to bring the case to a conclusion for political reasons. In the fifth, he takes matters into his own hands. (Consider the title. Though I will note there is yet another book, which I haven't read.)

Many of the recurring characters reappear. Sergeant Malek, Boruvka's impulsive but wrongheaded underling, performs the same role here, though in the last two stories he's outclassed in his wrongheadedness by Pudil. Eve Adams, the lounge singer, who pretty much served as the protagonist/detective in the previous one, also appears here. And Lieutenant Boruvka's wife and daughter also reappear. There's a plotline through all five stories about Zuzanna, the daughter. It turns out she's pregnant, by somebody she's not married to and won't be getting married to. 

The title of the first story is an allusion to the Cole Porter song 'Miss Otis Regrets' and at the beginning Zuzanna is listening to the song. Lieutenant Boruvka doesn't yet understand what's up with his daughter, but when he hears the song, he gets worried.

We're not told which version Zuzanna is listening to, and I suppose Ella Fitzgerald is more likely, but I figure you can't go wrong with Fred Astaire, even if, by 1960, his voice (and his dancing) were no longer what they'd once been:

I may very well now think this is the best of three I've read, though I reserve the right to change my mind back to the first one. 😉 All three are a lot of fun.

Covering the Czech Republic for this year's European Reading Challenge.

Monday, July 1, 2024

June Wrapup

All of my reading in June in one swell foop...

The Mystery Department

Harini Nagendra/Murder Under a Red Moon

Kaveri Murthy's second case. Set in Bangalore, India in the 1920s, I liked the first last summer. Kaveri enjoyed her successful detectivizing in that case; she was a bored housewife, but now she's going to have an agency. Her husband's OK with it, her mother-in-law less sure. But she's got a friend on the police force, some Bangalore Street Irregulars, and friends and acquaintances know she's good at it. This starts as embezzlement, but ends in murder. Perhaps not too mysterious, but charming and enjoyable. 

The third and most recent is on order at my library. 

Craig Johnson/The Cold Dish

A couple of years ago four boys gang-raped an indigenous girl; they were convicted, but their sentences were shockingly light. Then the leader of the boys is shot dead. Wyoming Sheriff Longmire takes into account it could be just a hunting accident, but suspects somebody's out for revenge. When a second boy is shot, he knows.

I know Lark likes the series and somewhere else I saw it compared to Tony Hillerman's, strong recommendations, so I tried it. This is the first. The interactions between the characters were fun, and while I was worried the plot would be a little too grisly for my taste, it was OK on that front. However, it was 400 pages and I did keep feeling it could be a hundred pages shorter and better for it. (Dame Agatha can do it in 250, if not 200.) Still I enjoyed this one & I'll carry on.

The Poetry Department

Matthew Arnold/Selected Poems

I didn't know Matthew Arnold's poetry very well--really only 'Dover Beach', I guess--and I thought maybe I didn't like it very well. But after rereading a bunch of Anthony Hecht last month (and his response to 'Dover Beach') I thought I'd try some Arnold. He's better than I thought... 😉 Except that his poems are mostly too long, I might even put some on a poetry post. Anyway, I'll be reading him more closely.

Richard Howard/Inner Voices

Him, I knew I liked. Inner Voices is a selection of his poetry from 1963-2003, so covering most of his career, but not all: he died in 2022. Howard was gay; in era when confessional poetry was king, his early poetry was pleasantly out-of-step, voicing Edith Wharton or John Ruskin. His book Untitled Subjects won the Pulitzer for poetry in 1969; it's a series of monologues by Victorian-era commoners, funny and touching.

By the late 70s though he's mined that vein and I felt there was a falling off. Then come the 80s and it's become both possible, but also maybe required, to acknowledge one's homosexuality. There are AIDS poems; it was a tough period. But it added a new weight to his poetry, without taking away his humour.

Two books by Ana Blandiana

Ana Blandiana (a pseudonym) is a Romanian poet born in 1942. She won this year's Princess of Asturia Prize in Literature. I quoted from a couple of her books with some more thoughts here.

Big Ole Literary Novels

Thackeray/Henry Esmond

Henry Esmond is born abroad under dodgy circumstances to parents who may be dead. He's shuffled home to be raised a bit neglectfully by an aunt and uncle and falls in love with their daughter, his flirty first cousin. Eventually he goes off to fight in the wars of his time.

Henry's home country is England. The war of his time is the War of Spanish Succession. (Marlborough, Malplaquet, all that. 1701-1714.) Also going on is the question of English succession. Will it be the Catholic Stuarts or some other Protestant dynasty that inherits the English throne? Henry is involved in both struggles.

Virginia Woolf says in A Room of One's Own, that 'the critics often say that Esmond is Thackeray's most perfect novel.' I doubt the critics would say that now, and Woolf had her doubts--this is when she tries to get into a specialist library and is turned away because she's a woman. Still the Thackeray is a pretty good read, even if the flirty Beatrix Esmond is a bit Becky Sharp (of Vanity Fair) in less vibrant colours.

I read it now because last month I finished Ippolito Nievo's Confessions of an Italian. Change Henry Esmond to Carlo Altoviti in the first paragraph and you've got the plot of Confessions. Carlo's cousin is called Pisana, and his wars are Napoleon in Italy and then the early wars of the Risorgimento. (Garibaldi, the defense of the Roman Republic. 1793-1848 or so.) Henry Esmond came out in 1852, just a couple of years before Nievo was writing, and he thought, now there's a plot I can plunder. (Nievo also stole manfully from Ugo Foscolo's Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, mostly for his thinking about the nature of Italian patriotism.) It also was a pretty good read, even if it was twice the length of the already longish Henry Esmond. La Pisana was a more psychologically believable flirt than Beatrix Esmond, I thought. The final twist is our young soldier-hero's obsessive romance was maybe less weird in Nievo. (Though pretty weird in both.) 

I did have to keep Wikipedia open for both novels for explanations of historical background. The first full translation into English of the Nievo, by Lucy Riall, came out in 2014.

And how about that dapper Italian on the cover? He's neither Nievo, nor supposed to be Carlo Altoviti. But who cares?

Jean d'Ormesson/The Glory of the Empire

This was a delightfully odd one. D'Ormesson's novel came out in 1971. It was his sixth, and the earlier ones apparently hadn't done much. This won prizes and got d'Ormesson elected to the Academie Française in short order. It was translated into English in 1974--superbly--by Barbara Bray. I read it in a New York Review Books reissue.

The Empire grows from two feuding cities who finally unite and conquer the known world. There are three famous emperors--Arsaphes, Basil, Alexis--though with periods of chaos between them; the third creates a golden age of culture and eventually peace that will not last. So far it could be any of various world-building fantasy novels, and, in fact, Tolkien gets a nod--we're told at one point he's the author of a history of a minor war on the Empire's eastern edge.

And that's a small example. The founding cities code as Sparta and Athens (one militaristic, one cultural) but are set geographically (if they're anywhere) on the west coast of Turkey. The Empire exists in our world and it impacts our world's poets, novelists, historians, and that's where d'Ormesson really goes to town. Corneille's last play, a failure, was the story of Arsaphes and his love; d'Ormesson quotes (creates) lines from the play, writing them in the alexandrines of the 1600s. (Bray amusingly translates them into heroic couplets, purportedly by Dryden, and does it well.) When Bergotte dies in Proust, it's not that Vermeer:


he's remembering; it's a Piero della Francesca painting of Alexis and his mother. D'Ormesson 'quotes' the passage in Proust. (I.e., makes it up.) Historians from Burckhardt to Bloch discuss episodes in the Empire. Sexual theorists from Freud to Foucault consider the consequences. Edmund Gibbon's The Rise of the Empire features in the bibliography. Renan doesn't write a Vie de Jesus, but a Vie de Alexis. No word on whether that book, too, is sometimes considered a precursor to Nazi thought. We're told Alexis is the only pagan who has ever been decreed a saint; we're given--in Italian!--the lines from Dante's Paradiso where he appears. The last source mentioned in that bibliography is Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, but the only Hadrian in The Glory of the Empire is Pope Hadrian VIIth. Is that then an allusion to the Baron Corvo novel? Maybe!

One long collection of egghead-y easter eggs mixed in with a couple of doomed love affairs and some battle scenes might just drive you nuts, and I certainly didn't read this in one sitting. As you might guess, Borges is a clear precursor (and shows up several times). But if you're the sort of person who thought the only thing wrong with 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' was that it wasn't long enough, you'll love this.

A few sensible-sounding (?) quotes:

'History is never about anything but the folly of men.' [p.152]

'People are not interested in the past any more. And yet it was the past that made us.' [p.200]

'History fabricates its own sources.' [Supposedly this is Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Maybe it even is.] [p.257]

'...novelists given to the lamentable genre of historical fiction bear a heavy responsibility...' [p.273]

Obviously all deeply ironic coming from such a book.

When Marguerite Yourcenar became the first woman elected to the French Academy in 1980, there was considerable opposition. Jean d'Ormesson was her primary advocate.


When I get cookbooks or food-related books from the library I often just skim them. These two got read cover to cover.

Hazebroek & Elenbaas/Hot Coals

I got a fancy kamado-style grill for my birthday a while back, which I am still learning how to use. (My old Weber kettle was rusting away...) This was heavy on history, theory, and practice, which is great as far as I'm concerned and why it got read cover-to-cover, unlike the other two kamado cookbooks, which are being browsed.

Dolinsky/The Ultimate Chicago Pizza Guide

A mix of recipes and descriptions of Chicago pizza places as of the end of the pandemic. The list of pizza places was a trip down memory lane; the recipes made me want to mix up my pizza-making game. (I do both flat and deep dish pretty often.)

He can be a bit repetitive, but he's got a punchy way with metaphors that suggests he was reading sportswriters from the 30s: 'a nice even browning, like a retiree in Boca'  or 'the top layer is as thin as the Trib's business section' that keeps one reading.

He introduces the concept PIGUE (pizza I grew up eating), suggesting that people in general become uncritical about their childhood favourite. He says a lot of people feel this way about Barnaby's in the northern suburbs of Chicago--a pizza I'd totally forgotten about until reading this book. (And apparently I ate at a satellite branch, not the mother ship.)  But my PIGUE is My Pi pizza, a deep dish pizza, but not especially deep. And I am certainly unable to think about it critically. I had thought the last of its two branches had closed in the late 80s, but it turns the son of the former owner has refounded it, and Dolinsky thinks it's good. That next trip to Chicago...

And speaking of Chicago:

David Mamet in Chicago

I read/reread three plays by David Mamet set in Chicago. Sexual Perversity in Chicago has two guys and two girls. One guy and one girl are cynical about love; the cynical guy, Bernie, in particular is an obnoxious fabulist. The non-cynical pair fall in love--for a while. The play premiered in Chicago in 1974. I'm not sure about this play: on the page at least the love story didn't feel very convincing. It was the basis for the movie About Last Night, which I haven't seen but now want to. I expect it to be watered down, though.

Then I read Duck Variations. Fourteen short scenes where two old guys meet on a park bench and talk about ducks. No plot, but it was great. Mamet says in the stage notes it could be any park bench looking out at a lake, but no, it's Chicago: they discuss the pump houses at one point. Toronto doesn't have pump houses out in the lake where they get water, and I imagine most other lakeside cities just have hoses under the lake that you can't see. First there was Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, then there was Fourteen Ways of Talking about Ducks. Take that, Wallace Stevens.

Then I finished by rereading American Buffalo, my favorite of Mamet's plays that I know. (I've seen Glengarry Glen Ross twice--the movie once and on stage once. Maybe it could be done differently, but there was too much scenery-chewing in both. Death of a Fuckin' Salesman, indeed. That's often considered his best, but not for me.) In this a junk shop owner has a buffalo head nickel and sells it to a collector. But maybe he sold it for too little? He decides he's going to steal it back. How that goes. This takes place on the north side of Chicago--somehow I think of it as in my neighborhood, though it's probably south of where I grew up. We're told the collector lives on Lake Shore Drive--which would make him rich. A pretty great play, I think.

The books still around the house:

I've been reading plenty, but not blogging much. Oh, well. My blogging mojo has gone missing. (Department of Missing Mojo? Hello? Have you seen...) Maybe this omnibus post will get me over the hump.

Next month? It's Paris in July. Maybe when I reread Giovanni's Room this time, I'll actually blog about it? We'll see. I'm also thinking more Chicago books, particularly covering the late 70s and early 80s. Sara Paretsky, Michelle Obama, maybe something I haven't read before, though I'm not sure what just now. [Suggestions welcome!] What are your plans?

Happy Canada Day! To Canadians and those thinking about moving to Canada depending on election outcomes in your jurisdiction. The fireworks are starting as I'm finishing this.