Potter's Book Blog

Reviews of world literature from 1900 to the present.

Category: Eastern European

The Melancholy of Resistance

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The tortuous prose of this novel splays across endless pages, progressing slowly, determinedly, and hellishly toward a small town’s ruin. Whither the town? Hungary, I guess. But if you don’t see something of your own neighborhood here, then you’re not paying attention.

László Krasznahorkai / Hungarian / 1989 / 314 pages
Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes

There’s a point in the first few pages of The Melancholy of Resistance where you’ll find yourself breathing somewhat audibly, perhaps at an accelerated pace, matching the sweep of your eyes as they tear through the pages-long sentences of Krasznahorkai’s pen. The narrative begins in a confined, cramped space — the inside of a truant train packed with dirty country bumpkins — and cultivates a palpable sense of dread. The character of interest is a middle class suburban widow who should be calling to mind your own mother, if not in degree then at least in kind. She’s better off, classier, and fussier than the other passengers on the train and she begins to get nervous. There’s a man sitting near by. He’s watching her, flirting with her, follows her down the aisle when she runs into the bathroom. She sits on the toilet as he bangs on the door, demanding some sort of hasty sexual encounter, the train moving all the while through a dark and cosmic country landscape that it should have cleared hours ago were it not for the unexplained (but not unanticipated) delay. It’s really frightening stuff.

The woman manages to escape and makes her way home safely. But by the end of the novel, she’s dead anyway. Raped and beaten, left on a freezing sidewalk, she’s buried unceremoniously right before The Melancholy of Resistance closes out with a biologically exacting account of her decaying body. There are many other people in this novel, many other happenings, and a considerable degree of dynamism. But the message is clear enough in these opening and closing scenes. The world will have its way with you; your life is not secure; and maybe even: cause-and-effect thinking makes sense biologically, but certainly not socially.

There are a great many things written into the plot of this novel for which there can be no accounting. During the same evening as the aforementioned train’s arrival into a small Hungarian town, a circus (loosely speaking) also arrives. It bears one central attraction: the stuffed and preserved body of a dead whale. Like particularly malevolent and group-thinking zombies, a ragtag bunch of foreigners follows the circus into the town’s main square and idle away the hours. They look and speak roughly, pulse with energy as a single mass, and collectively portend disaster for the town. The local population becomes increasingly paranoid as the circus opens its doors to dismal reviews and the mother of all anticlimaxes. What’s drawn the mob to the circus? What is the real intent? The intent is complicated to suss out and adequately motivate. That’s fine. What’s important to the story is the end result: the overnight sacking of the town, its inhabitants, and its physical plant by this otherworldly horde.

The townsfolk’s worst fears are realized in resplendent fashion and Krasznahorkai lets loose with a cosmically (but ill-defined) evil the likes of which dot the pages of any good Bolaño or McCarthy novel. In the aftermath of the event, the more autocratic among the town’s survivors set up a totalitarian police state in an effort to guard against the future possibility of repeated devastation. Aside from making the day-to-day routine intolerable in the town, however, the effort is clearly lacking. When the dead whale circus comes to town, no social order is going to save you. Okay, so it’s an exceedingly odd book.

This can occasionally work against its broader message. But one of the benefits of the approach is the range of highly varied characters that confronts the reader. One of the protagonists is a mental space cadet who spends more time considering the cosmos than engaging with the empirical reality that surrounds him. He is the most sympathetic character in the novel and is ultimately dealt with somewhat harshly by Krasznahorkai’s horde. Another of the protagonists is an aging musicologist who has retreated into the isolation of his domestic life because he finds the town and the impending storm too difficult to manage. Then there is the totalitarian and cruel woman who seizes the helm of the town when presented with the post-apocalyptic opportunity, the cigar-chomping and scandalous circus leader, the overbearing and violent army general, the drunken police captain, and his two toddling offspring. It’s an effective and arresting cast, all of whose thoughts are given light and life by Krasznahorkai’s deep and thorough prose.

Indeed, the writing style is, perhaps, the novel’s defining characteristic. With no paragraph breaks, many-line sentences, and only the occasional chapter break, The Melancholy of Resistance unfolds as deliberately and as slowly as the evil Krasznahorkai uncorks in the final pages. He is adept at the internal monologue, the stream-of-consciousness narrative that begins outside of a character’s head, delves inside, runs back out, and then comes to rest on some proximately located inanimate object. In the same sentence. Over and over again. In that sense, the length of the sentences rival those of Henry James, yet they tend to be more playful, less formally organized, and subject to far fewer boundaries. Halfway into a Krasznahorkai sentence, you still have no idea where it’s going to end up. At its best, this is a liberating tactic: the deep paranoia, obsessive thinking, and fear of his characters could not be so effectively captured any other way. At its worst, the writing drags considerably and makes for uninviting reading. Unless you have many uninterrupted hours, Melancholy is a slow read that begs to be put down (for a rest), but not picked up (due to inertia). If you stop, you forget; if you break the flow, you’re out of the current. This is a book best read in long, deliberate stretches.

Ultimately, the mixed bag tips toward the positive. For all its structural impediments, Melancholy does end up being a quick read if you stay after it and the investment-payoff quotient is highly compelling. This is not, however, the type of book that I can recommend to a wide audience. If you like your fights postmodern and experimental, then this is certainly one worth having. If the prospect of infinite sentences is daunting to you, then the interaction with the novel’s darker substance is not going to resuscitate the work. I give it a qualified endorsement.

Rating: 7 / 10

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Doctor Zhivago

doctor zhivago

Consider the archetypical Russian novel: broad, ponderous, many-charactered, loosely historical and partly political. Now increase the political ante by a factor of five and accelerate the narrative arch by about the same amount. What emerges is a stimulant-addled youth’s version of a Tolstoy novel, kaleidoscopic and bewildering. What emerges is Doctor Zhivago.

Boris Pasternak / Russian / 1957 / 496 pages
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky 

In his beautifully empirical, yet emotionally haunting telling of the Spanish Civil War (Homage to Catalonia), George Orwell gives the reader a blessed pass when it comes time to present the obtuse political niceties of the division-prone socialist militias. Although he argues that the war “was above all things a political war,” Orwell also encourages the reader to gloss over his description of the many left-leaning factions he encountered while fighting: “if you are not interested in the horrors of party politics, please skip.” Many years ago, when I first read this novel, I was struck by Orwell’s considerate warning; even though he couldn’t bring himself to part from the material, he was sufficiently self-aware as to not take it out on the rest of us.

In light of this experience, while reading most of the pages of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, I must admit that I found myself fairly indignant.

Here is a novel that takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Russia beginning in 1903 and culminating in the early 1940s, employs a rough hundred characters in the telling (more than 30 of whom will be introduced in the novel’s first couple dozen pages), and — at every point — makes bizarrely specific reference to flash-in-the-pan political parties, strange geographies, current (as of 1950) culture, odd laws, trivial plot points, discursive Russian folk songs, and obscurantist moral philosophy. The recent translation from Pevear and Volokhonsky comes accompanied with droves of footnotes intended to bring the contemporary reader up to speed with Pasternak’s random grab-bag of Russian trivia, but it’s a tall order. Tolstoy is timeless. Dostoevsky does fine as well. But, man, is Pasternak anachronistic.

I could handle all of this a bit better if Doctor Zhivago could just settle down and stay focused on the same idea (or city or conversation) for more than a few minutes. The text is broken into very short chapters and each chapter is comprised of paragraphs that usually clock in at three to five sentences in length. While this ostensibly makes for pleasant, quick reading, Pasternak omits so much connective tissue from the narrative that the reader is forced to slow down and fill in the gaps. It is slow going, especially in the first couple hundred pages, where the narrative is not at all focused on the singular Doctor Zhivago as the protagonist, but rather a wide field of characters (many of whom are never properly introduced).

I made it forty pages in before I had to flip back to the beginning and re-read the opening in greater detail. This additional investment made it no easier for me to catch the many “coincidences” Pasternak presents in the narrative (most of which are comprised of two people chancing upon one another in unexpected terms). An example of such a coincidence goes like this: Character A is introduced, discussed, and dispatched with in the course of eight sentences on page seven; we don’t see Character A again for ninety pages until he accidentally runs into Doctor Zhivago. He’s now married to Zhivago’s niece (or something) to whom we’ve never been introduced. Profound?

And all of this is doubly unfortunate, because Pasternak actually has a fascinating story to tell: the story of revolutionary Russia, which put in motion a social sea-change that quickly got out of control and reduced the massive country to a domestic mess as it was right on the cusp of a series of major international conflicts. And the thematic takeaway from these events is compelling, as well: despite our intellectual allegiances, everyday logistics and our emotions can pull us away from even our most deeply-held beliefs. Thus, the revolution for the people begins to kill and terrorize the people; thus, Zhivago is unable to stay true to his wife in the presence of a more alluring woman; thus, the same characters appear in the novel over and over again, but always in different guises and in new roles.

The writing is, at times, damnably good. Particular scenes — a dinner party before the outbreak of war, a long train ride through the Russian countryside, several weeks of domestic bliss in a comfy apartment building — will stay with me for a long time to come. Pasternak can create atmospheric, cosmic space around a character just as adeptly as he can shrink that scope down to the close confines of a tiny cabin. When he writes about a character feeling happy, alive, and free, it really does seem as if the entirety of the Russian steppes lies beneath his feet; at the same time, when his characters feel threatened, hemmed in, trapped, the reader also begins to suffocate. Somewhat sporadically, then, I can give credit to Pasternak’s adroit pen.

But the total tonnage of Doctor Zhivago is simply too much weight to bear, especially when it’s flopped onto such an uninspiring protagonist. As the symbolic incarnation of individualism in a environment hellbent on conformity, I suppose that Zhivago plays the part. But for a supposedly intelligent, scientifically-minded person, he presents as too much of a naive ninny to be taken too seriously. And many of his personal conundrums are, really, entirely unsatisfactory. He agonizes over whether to choose his wife or a new lover; he chooses the new lover; then toward the book’s ending he takes another lover. Gone is the resolution of the soul-searching quest that dominates much of  Zhivago‘s middle chapters. In its stead steps a cur.

I don’t know. The historical and political importance of this novel are well-established and the circumstances of its censorship and eventual publication are fascinating. Pasternak was quickly granted the Nobel Prize in Literature after Zhivago appeared around the world although, in hindsight, I think many historians would classify this as more of a geopolitical move (the award was made in 1958 during the height of the Cold War and journalistic accounts of that year indicate that the CIA had a hand in circulating advanced copies of the book to the Nobel Prize committee in an effort to embarrass the Russian censors). But I just can’t get terribly excited about this novel. It’s worth reading for those interested in rounding our their familiarity with the Russian canon, but I’d check out the old guard (and even some members of the new guard, like Solzhenitsyn) before wading into Doctor Zhivago.

Rating: 5 / 10

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Three Novels

three novels

More like an epic than a trilogy, Agota Kristof has crafted a landmark parable from hell that begins deceptively simply and gradually snowballs into unreliable complexity; as the reader progresses through The NotebookThe Proof, and The Third Lie, he must continually balance his curiosity with his sorrow. These countervailing tendencies work in bizarre tandem, bring the three novels to a conclusion that is both satisfying and deeply unsettling.

Agota Kristof / Hungarian / 1986-1991 / 478 pages
Translated by Alan Sheridan, David Watson, and Marc Romano

The Soviet Union gave rise to its fair share of intellectual detractors and perhaps no where is this more apparent than in literature. Countless books have approached the horrors of post-WWI Eastern Europe from a variety of angles, whether it be the Moscow show trials under Stalin’s rule (Darkness at Noon), the forced labor camps populated by political rogues (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), the hopelessly futile mechanization of the Russian countryside (Ferdydurke), or the Soviet occupations of Czechoslovakia (covered in great detail in several of Milan Kundera’s novels, most notably The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Employing a mixture of absurdism, cold empiricism, and false jocularity, these novels are loosely-veiled fictions predicated in large part on a reality that was too difficult (or, depending on the state of censorship at their points of publication, too scandalous) to confront head-on. Koestler, Solzhenitsyn, Gombrowicz, Kundera, and their contemporaries also knew, no doubt, that plastering the pages of their novels with horrors too literal in their content would have made for unpleasant reading experiences. You do owe the reader, after all, some degree of consideration.

More recent authors emerging from other literary traditions, have, however, begged to differ. Cormac McCarthy employs several depictions of heinous and depraved violence in Blood Meridian in an effort to dispel the Western myth of manifest destiny and to illustrate violence’s redemptive powers. When Haruki Murakami and Mario Vargas Llosa write about warfare and political torture, you’ll want to make sure you’re reading on an empty stomach. And when Roberto Bolaño laces hundreds of pages of his epic 2666 with forensic reports of murdered women’s bodies, you’ll have to repeatedly remind yourself about the value added of such an approach (lest it all just becomes too much to bear). The value added, in case you were wondering, is an unflinching depiction of reality, an honest reckoning with an inconvenient past, and — in many respects — a near-total disregard for the sterile sensibilities of the reader.

Agota Kristof brings some of this intuition back to the subject of Eastern Europe under the Soviet regime where, at least with the first novel in her trilogy, she repeatedly bludgeons the reader about the face with horrifying accounts of what transpires in rural towns when they’re occupied by foreign forces during war. Written in terse, weird, objective first-person-plural sentences, The Notebook reads like a hopelessly lucid Hemingway stumbling through the bowels of hell with one of his friends (for kicks, let’s say Ford Maddox Ford, whose finely honed understanding of tragedy would have found him quite at home in this landscape). This first third of the trilogy is set in a rural village several miles away from the nation’s (Hungary’s?) capital city. Foreign troops have been garrisoned in the town and its proximity to the front finds its population beset by army deserters, vagabonds, political prisoners, and all manner of other transients. Food is scarce and bombings are frequent; these two facts screw themselves into the collective psyche of the town until everyone behaves inhumanely toward everyone else.

Deposited in the middle of this hell scape by their mother are two young twins, Lucas and Claus. She’s en route to the front to look for her husband and, rather than taking her sons into the line of fire, opts instead to leave them with their estranged grandmother. The grandmother is known in the village as “The Witch” and is widely rumored to have poisoned her husband to death. You can imagine that she’s not exactly the most stellar maternal presence. The twins, on the other hand, are smart and adaptable. They get along well with one another and think up various “exercises” by which they might train themselves to withstand the onslaught of the world around them. They engage in silence exercises, stillness exercises, pain exercises, etc. until they believe they can stand up to many of the pressures at play in the village. They also teach themselves how to write and speak in different languages, play the harmonica, and tend to the farming and livestock.

A great deal of emphasis is placed, in fact, on their writing and eventually the reader understands that the “novel” being read is, in fact, the notebook of Lucas and Claus. They depict themselves as being super humans, so emotionally distant from the horrors surrounding them that they only record their objective observations without any emotion or editorializing. They have trained themselves to feel no pain, no cold, no heat, and no fear. Without taking into consideration what follows in the trilogy, their account already seems dubious at best. These kids are in their early teens and somehow they’ve managed to supplant every natural human impulse!? I doubt it. The Notebook abruptly ends when they trick a man into walking onto a land mine, which clears the way for Claus to run across the border and into a new country. Lucas returns to their grandmother’s farm in solitude. Their motivations are unclear.

The implausibility of this narrative is made subtly more evident over the course of the second section — The Proof — which mainly follows Lucas as he adjusts to life without his twin brother (a painful prospect for him) and takes into his house a young woman and her newborn child. Kristof front loads most of the truly horrific scenes into the manic, hysterical first book and she’s considerably more careful and keen in the second volume. The narration slows down, we can catch our breath a bit, and she begins to unfold in sensitive ways the depth of the pain Lucas is feeling over his brother’s departure. The war ends and the village in which he lives passes in and out of the hands of a new political apparatus: the land is collectivized, schooling is made compulsory, curfews are enforced, and political detractors are summarily tried, incarcerated, and eventually executed. Lucas keeps his head down and tries to live a quiet life. We’re introduced to a broader cast of distinct and interesting characters.

But Kristof is just playing with us. And we don’t know it yet, but we’re in a lot of trouble.

First, the bizarrely idyllic landscape she sketches is yet again broken in two by a horrible suicide. Many of Lucas’ friends disappear or are jailed and he gradually begins to lose his grip on reality. He ups and leaves and cannot be found. Then his brother, Claus, shows up in the town looking for him. Everyone suspects he’s really Lucas and has just lost his mind. An acquaintance suggests that they are one in the same, given the anagrammatic relation of their names. Claus begins to cause trouble for the town, ends up incarcerated, and confused. The novel terminates suddenly with a police report that notes the town has no record of either a Claus or a Lucas and, furthermore, everything we’ve just read in The Proof is nothing more than the feverish hallucinations of the man, Claus, who is presently sleeping in the town’s jail cell. Having come to the conclusion that you can’t fully trust what you read in The Notebook and you can’t in any way trust what you’ve just finished reading in The Proof, you feel like Kristof just punched you in the gut and left you on the side of the road. In the concluding volume — aptly titled The Third Lie — she lets the trilogy down easily, obliquely and really pulls on the heartstrings as much as she does the intellect. It’s a killer combination that leaves you vulnerable and awestruck.

The interesting thing about the final third of the trilogy is that you begin to realize that, for all the visceral emphasis placed on it in The Notebook, the heinous violence the reader trudges through was not really the point of the enterprise. I think this is an important distinction typically missed by reviewers who focus on just the first volume (the three books are clearly not intended to be read separately from one another). Rather, the violence is intended to lay bare a much more depressing characteristic of warfare: the physical trauma it wreaks also damages the psyche and wounds the mind. The result is a skewed memory, an inability to recall events as they truly happened.

But memory is damaged and perverted in many other ways, as well, whether by mental illness (which is certainly a possibility when it comes to Lucas and Claus) or by the nature of fiction (both men additionally claim to be poets and novelists) or by the revisionist histories typically employed in totalitarian regimes. All of these complicated dynamics combine in The Third Lie to draw into question nearly every premise presented as objective reality up to that point. You may not be able to put your finger on the precisely “correct” account of the lives of Claus and Lucas, but to a very large extent it doesn’t matter. Kristof’s case for the purely subjective over the naively objective may be the most convincing I’ve ever read.

Rating: 9 / 10

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The Street of Crocodiles

Though short on plot and almost completely devoid of true dialogue, Schulz nonetheless manages to craft a riveting work through the use of deep, vivid metaphors and a wide palette of impeccably selected words.

Bruno Schulz / Polish / 1934 / 160 pages
Translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel 

I imagine playing a parlor game with Bruno Schulz: “Hey, Bruno, see that fireplace over there? I’ll give you ten seconds to describe it in words that are so blazingly vivid that I’ll feel as if I were burning right in the center of it.” Or something like this: “Hey, Bruno, have you felt the varnished wood on this table? I’ll give you half a minute to concoct the most poignant metaphor describing its surface texture.” If the game was simply a demonstration, no doubt the assembled audience would erupt in applause when Schulz had finished the round. If there were a wager involved, I’d almost certainly be out a bit of money.

So it goes with The Street of Crocodiles, a quasi-mythical-quasi-scientific work of childhood nostalgia where Schulz employs some of the most striking descriptive passages I’ve ever encountered. While the book tends more toward the mythical (Kafka is the comparison that gets thrown around the most, but there are similarities here to other absurdist/postmodern Eastern European authors like Kundera and Gombrowicz), there are also some subtler and more empirical nods toward the scientific and empirical (I’ll go out on a limb here and note that I found several more similarities between this novel and Levi’s The Periodic Table than I think most people would be apt to indulge in). Indeed, the space between these two extremes and the passing of objects between them are discussed a great deal in the novel. For instance, in the space of a few pages the narrator’s flighty imagination ranges from descriptions of his father’s scientific experiments to a fantastical discussion of the approaching apocalypse; rather concrete observations about the geographical layout of the neighborhood are countered by borderline hallucinatory passages about humans becoming insects. But somehow it all works on a level that is difficult to convey here. These transitions are handled with greater discretion than, say, the buttocks-swelling episodes in Ferdydurke or the waking-up-as-an-insect premise in The Metamorphosis.

Creation and, to a lesser extent, destruction are recurring themes in the novel. The narrator’s father spouts out lengthy discourses examining the differences between animate and inanimate materials before finally coming to the ludicrous conclusion that we should all treat tailors’ dummies as living human beings. He verbally recites his own version of the Book of Genesis wherein he undermines in substantial (and entertaining) fashion the basic theological premises of the original document. He imports birds from foreign lands and hatches their eggs in the attic. The newly propagated bicycle becomes all the rage throughout the marketplace and a new puppy dog holds the narrator’s attention for several smile-inducing pages. But destruction (or at least the potential for destruction) lurks in the novel as well. The birds are eventually released into the wild through a window in the attic, thereby destroying the father’s makeshift aviary. A gigantic winter storm threatens to tear down buildings and a huge comet lunges dangerously close to the earth’s orbit. While most of the competing forces play out at street level, the implications are often projected into the cosmos.

But the novel’s real delights are the descriptive passages. I’m usually fairly willing to slot stage-setting and longwinded lists of environmental details pretty low on my list of things that I seek out in a good book. Robinson’s Housekeeping recently jolted me out of this stupor, however, and Crocodiles is a superb follow-on. When Schulz describes a family waking up before sunrise to begin preparing for the day, it’s hard not to get tired; his descriptions of summer days really feel hot and in his hands the Polish winter chills you to the core; his accounts of cockroaches, puppies, and growing vegetation are so incredible that it feels like you’re ogling a photograph rather than reading typeset words. Thomas Mann is another writer whose ability to set the physical parameters of a scene were truly amazing, but the thing about Mann was that I was never exactly sure how he did it. With Schulz, though, you know precisely what’s going down: he simply smacks down metaphor after metaphor until you can hear, taste, smell, or feel what he is writing. I was truly impressed by this.

Although Crocodiles might have been a bit better (or longer), I believe it points toward bigger things that could have materialized, but unfortunately never did. Schulz was executed in a German ghetto during World War II and most of his other works (either completed or in development at the time) were lost. To the best of my knowledge, his only other surviving novel is an equally short piece entitled Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass about which I have never read or heard anything. For readers potentially interested in Polish literature, however, I’d point them toward Schulz over Gombrowicz without reservations.

Rating: 6 / 10

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Ferdydurke

This chaotic and disjointed novel takes satirical swipes at Polish culture, art, politics, class awareness, pedagogy, familial relations, intergenerational struggles, and Gombrowicz’ critics; if you can sort it all out, Ferdydurke makes for entertaining reading for adventurous souls looking to move a bit beyond the standard canon.

Wiltold Gombrowicz / Polish / 1937 / 279 pages
Translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt

This is a pretty absurd book. Your first indication would be the title (which means about as much in Polish as it does in English, i.e. nothing). Your second would be the cover art (which was illustrated by Bruno Schulz, a fellow Polish avant-garde author, and depicts a hydra-like mash-up of tree limbs and human body parts). As a third indication, I would refer you to the novel’s table of contents which boasts a bizarre palette of chapter titles and conveys almost no information about where you, the prospective reader, will be taken in the course if its (honestly-feels-just-a-bit-longer-than) 279 pages. Absurd. But the absurdity is supposed to bite and it is clearly a very serious novel as well (it was banned by Nazis and Stalinists alike, making its early dissemination in 1940s Poland nigh impossible). While most of the politically objectionable punches are pulled until the novel’s finale, Gombrowicz finds plenty to poke fun at in the Polish family, the Polish grade school, and the Polish art scene. When these jokes inform our sensibilities about families, schools, and the arts in general, they are winning witticisms. When they don’t, you just have to keep your head down and plow through until the next page.

The novel is broken into three main segments and each segment is separated by a pair of chapters: the first chapter in each pair is a “preface” and the second chapter in each pair is a short story that Gombrowicz had previously published and transplanted anew into the novel for the sake of ruining the main story’s linearity (by his own explicit admission). In these prefaces, he takes a substantial stab at the stilted and formal pursuit of art. He argues that art need not be so mature, that synthesizing from parts is difficult, and that structure, form, function, etc. are shifty and relative terms. While it reads a bit like an author’s ad hoc justification of his inability to weave a cohesive whole, I’m more inclined to think that Gombrowicz set out to (immodestly and brashly) destroy many of his readers’ expectations about the novelistic form. In many ways, I think he succeeded: a charitable reading of Ferdydurke would almost certainly conclude that the parts are occasionally much more compelling than the whole.

I cite as Exhibit A the first interpolated short story “The Child Runs Deep in Filidor.” This is without a doubt the most dangerously hilarious 15-page passage of the written word I have ever read. I cite as Exhibit B the second interpolated short story “The Child Runs Deep in Filibert” (despite their nominal similarity, the stories are nothing alike). This is much shorter, more explosive, and substantially weirder than the first story, but it serves its purpose well: having wrapped up the second section of the novel that deals with the Polish family, Gombrowicz allows us to catch our breath before plunging us into a ponderous meditation on early-1900s rural life and its aristocratic institutions.

Aside from the sheer sublimity of these two moments, the author makes you work hard to unravel his absurdity. He’s sort of difficult to pin down. There are elements of Vonnegut in his style, but only when Vonnegut was at his most audacious (and, thus, worst). Susan Sontag’s introduction to the novel makes reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a point of comparison, but notes that Gombrowicz eschews much of the logic applied in Lewis Carroll’s novel. I think that there are flecks of Kafka here as well, but of a less precise and less nuanced manner. In the end, I am most reminded of a old childhood favorite of mine, The Phantom Tollbooth, as a suitable jumping off point. Ferdydurke is satirical, yes, but also rather fantastic and considerably (at least to my way of thinking) vague. After reading the portion of the book on the family, for example, I really have no idea if Gombrowicz is “pro modern family life” or “anti modern family life.” After trudging through his multitudinous potshots at both peasants and landlords, I cannot say with any certainty if Gombrowicz prefers one or the other. While I have some idea that he dislikes Polish pedagogy (at least its 1900s manifestation), I would be hard-pressed to find something that he offers up as a plausible alternative.

I don’t intend to summarize the plot of this novel, as the story line itself is largely window dressing for the first-person narration to find itself uniquely situated as an observer of a variety of everyday Polish social situations. Along with the anemic plot comes commensurately anemic characters. Gombrowicz does not give us individuals with personalities, per se, but rather characters as stock representations of different social entities. To this end, then, we see the professor whose professorness is more important than his thoughts, feelings, etc. We see a greedy aristocrat whose propensities toward violence and gluttony trump pages spent in the development and deepening of his personality. The main female character in the novel is referred to more often as “the modern schoolgirl” than she is by her actual name. While schoolboys quickly sort themselves into ideological camps at recess, Gombrowicz throws out their names in such a deluge that it obviates their individual importance.

But I’ll cut Gombrowicz some slack. After all, every lover of novels should occasionally read something that rails against the novel qua novel. And pieces, subdivisions, and fractions of things – both in general and in art more specifically – might justifiably elicit greater interest than their corresponding wholes. As a means for further exploring Eastern European literature, Ferdydurke makes for great reading once one has blown through his fair share of Kundera.

I must admit, though, that if the next book I read coheres more closely to an unbroken narrative arc, I might find myself wishing that Gombrowicz had tried just a little harder with this one.

Rating: 4 / 10

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

This disjointed and somewhat inconsistent novel is a nevertheless profound meditation on interpersonal and political relationships; the writing itself is at times staggeringly beautiful and has been situated in an inventive narrative structure that propels the book forward at a nimble pace.

Milan Kundera / Czech / 1984 / 314 pages
Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim

The opening of Kundera’s most famous novel somehow manages to juxtapose Nietzsche, fourteenth-century African kingdoms, and a number of obtuse philosophical concepts in the space of just a few hundred words. It only takes a handful of additional pages to realize, however, that Kundera intends to play a bit fast and loose with his philosophical musings (as well as his characters, their chronology, and, indeed, the entire narrative structure itself). What ensues is a freewheeling and at times inconsistent account of four people and a sturdy canine trying to make ends meet (“ends” in this case being both financial and emotional) during the Soviet Union’s 1968 occupation of the Czech Republic. Flecked with bits of Calvino, Vonnegut, and Camus, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is still a wholly unique book that attempts to wed such disparate subject matter as love, totalitarian government, the passage of time, the meaning of existence, human dominion over animals, and the scientific importance of counterfactual analysis. Keeping in mind that the novel weighs in at a scant 300 sparsely populated pages, you might a priori suspect a certain degree of spasticity in its presentation. Having read the novel, you might conclude that your suspicions were, in a word, correct.

The novel first caught my attention when a professor of mine included it among her list of “recommended readings” for an introduction to Post-Soviet politics class. Some time later a good friend listed it as one of his “close calls” in our Top 50 books project. If I assume the motivations of my professor were historical-instructive and that Brian’s motives were cultural-appreciative, then I believe that the book fulfills both criteria — but only just so.

The Unbearable Lightness is surely an historical novel. Set mostly during the Prague Spring of 1968, the novel charts the ascendency of a new Czech president, Dubcek, and the implementation of his liberalizing reforms. In response to these new policies, Soviet troops invaded the country, established a secret police, and severely cracked down on free speech. I would hesitate to categorize what Kundera writes as “historical fiction” in the same way that, for example, Darkness at Noon or The Feast of the Goat are historical fictions. Kundera draws much less on particulars and situates his characters with less precision in space and time than do Koestler and Vargas Llosa. We are only given enough historical grounding to inform Kundera’s lengthy meditations on totalitarian government, to chart out the changing landscape of Soviet Prague, and, in a handful of instances, to drive the plot.

The novel succeeds more resoundingly on the cultural-appreciative front; that is to say, it succeeds in literary form. For the past few years, I have been hard-pressed to correctly recall the novel’s title and part of the fun of reading it is untangling the meaning of the phrase “the unbearable lightness of being.” Kundera wrote the novel in direct opposition to Nietzsche’s conception of “eternal recurrence” which postulates that our decisions and the events that take place around us are given weight (i.e. meaning, importance, depth, etc.) because they are repeated infinitely. Kundera, by contrast, argues that we have but one life to live, our decisions are our own and, in most cases, are relatively poorly informed. Our existences, then, are “light” insofar as they do not matter in the broader passage of time; this lightness is “unbearable” because it is frustrating. We are not grounded, we are not of consequence, we are insubstantial.

Of course, the social scientist in me is eating this up. What Kundera is basically getting at is the dearth of knowledge and experience that humanity accumulates over time due to our lack of counterfactual exploration. If our lives were laboratories, if our decisions were experimental instead of conjectural, then we could reiterate decisions, replay events, and learn from the alternative. My favorite passage from the novel proceeds thusly: “If Czech history could be repeated, we should of course find it desirable to test the other possibility each time and compare the results. Without such an experiment, all considerations of this kind remain a game of hypotheses.” As a social scientist, I cannot generally replay history or induce experiments in populations of existing people (the roadblocks are both ethical and practical in nature). The lightness of being that Kundera finds unbearable is the same lightness of being that inhibits progress in the social sciences. But for Kundera, the unbearableness runs deeper than hypotheses testing and statistical models.

The Unbearable Lightness is divided into seven “vignettes” (a word choice that I defend along the following lines: each section is largely self-contained, seems to explore different thematic elements, and tends to cultivate its own narrative style). These vignettes are given titles and are broken into very short chapters often numbering upwards of twenty. To this end, the book is an easy read; however, Kundera throws so many narrative wrenches into the proverbial works that insufficiently close readers will be punished. For example, the narrator as author makes a number of appearances with statements (paraphrased) along the lines of “I created these characters out of my own experiences” and “You, the reader, will recall what I said about Tomas in Part I.” When I encounter things like this in a book, I am put on my guard. Why reference the characters qua characters? Why insert yourself into the narrative and remind us that, rather than immersing ourselves in a created world, we are instead kept at arm’s length, admiring a piece of composition in which we are not players? Other authorial innovations include an elliptical plot trajectory where we see the ending of the novel long before we physically get to the last page; a dictionary of words that are understood in different contexts from the male and female side of a relationship; and the heartfelt personification of a dog.

We are at times confronted with scenes that are both surreal and difficult to contextualize within the rest of the novel. Tereza, for example, is led up onto a wooded hillock overlooking Prague where she is voluntarily given the choice of whether or not she’d like to be executed by a firing squad. At another point, she stands in a public park and observes a long chain of colored benches floating down the stream. She is strangely seduced by a patron at a bar where she waitresses and is vaguely aware of a third person (or perhaps a video camera) hidden in the room where they copulate. Further along, dreams mimic reality and reality becomes increasingly oppressive and surreal.

Much is made in the novel of bipolarity: lightness versus weight, urban versus rural, sex versus love, man versus beast, and public image versus private action. I would offer more in the way of analysis if Kundera had offered us, as readers, more in the way of cohesion. It is a difficult novel to synthesize and, to be honest, I held off for several days before writing this review in the hopes that some mega-conclusion would enlighten me about the novelist’s intent. Alas, nothing came. I will, however, wholeheartedly advocate for reading this novel, if for no other reason than the fact that one of the central vignettes in the book (a passage entitled “Words Misunderstood”) is among the most poignant 40 pages of modern literature you’ll ever encounter. I closed the book and stared off into space for a few minutes, dumbfounded by the simplicity of the prose and the precision of the story.

In conclusion, read Kundera for his breadth and his brevity, for his form and his flair. There is beauty yet in the unbearable lightness of our being.

Rating: 7 / 10

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