Potter's Book Blog

Reviews of world literature from 1900 to the present.

Category: Very Good

The Aleph

the aleph

A good deal more measured and moderate than his explosively creative Fictionsthis collection of short stories reveals a writer who is almost singularly concerned with narrative, storytelling, and the presentation of plot elements in bizarre patterns. At times incredible (and at others, inscrutable), The Aleph is a densely concise treasure trove of erudite anecdotes.

Jorge Luis Borges / Argentinean / 1952 / 106 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley

I first tangled with Fictions when I was carting off to Omaha for college and it shattered my brain like a bomb. There was something at once both entertaining and exasperating about Borges’ fantastical visions that were, nonetheless, deeply grounded in the laws of physics, logic, and probability. He constructed libraries with infinite dimensions and infinite shelves of books, drafted rigorous encyclopedias of fabricated cultures, and described a lottery that engendered more lotteries. Borges began with simple concepts and expanded them into absurd discussions of forgery, storytelling, history, and crime. He writes of a man who could remember everything he came into contact with, a worldwide cult so nondescript that virtually any person could have been inducted without her own knowledge, and a spy who murders a person at random because his last name bears some resemblance to a piece of information he is trying to convey to his general. Borges’ juxtaposition of his prose (terse, precise) with his structural execution (dense, organized) belies the ridiculousness of the narratives themselves. It was a combination of elements that my younger, undergraduate brain soaked up like a sponge.

Rereading the collection nearly 10 years later, I find myself less distracted by the fantastical bells and whistles of Fictions and in a better position to appreciate the extreme learnedness Borges poured into these tales. This time around, it was the quieter moments in Fictions that I found the most arresting, the most poignant, most funny, clever, or harrowing. I was more willing to run down the permutations of permutations implicit in Borges’ presentation, to dwell on the expansiveness of the ideas that he had artfully crammed into three- or four-page segments. In fact, this time around, it was probably the subtlest of all his stories in this collection — “The South” — that captivated me most deeply. It is a simple story, told well, that requires a degree of pondering on par with that elicited from a typically good, novel-length work.

Fans of “The South” will find a lot to like in The Aleph, another short story collection Borges published (and refined in subsequent editions) in the five years after he finished Fictions. Although I believe The Aleph is standard consumption for most Spanish-speaking readers, this is a collection that has received considerably less attention in English translation. Combine this with the fact that there exists a bastardized third collection of stories available in English — Labyrinths — that manages to filch a subset of stories from both The Aleph and Fictions, and what I think you end up with is an American audience that has somewhat haphazardly sampled stories from Borges’ catalogue (whereas, it seems to me, Fictions and The Aleph each actually stand on their own as internally cohesive works and deserve to be read as distinct entities). All this by way of saying that you, the American reader of Borges, may experience some considerable deja vu in reading the rest of this review even though you have, in all probability, never actually picked up The Aleph. (But I digress on a high horse.)

The collection opens with a fantastical tale called “The Immortal” that would have sat well alongside many of the stories in Fictions, but is still distinct from those stories in its pacing, framing, and thematic thrust. In contemporary times, a woman buys a book from a bookseller who disappears shortly thereafter. Inside, she finds an addition to the text that charts out how a Roman soldier stumbles upon a city of immortal beings, one of them Homer himself. The reader is led to the believe that the bookseller was this Roman soldier, made immortal by his visit to the city and unable to shake this curse. The story nicely foreshadows — both in structure and in substance — how the rest of The Aleph will play out: longer, meandering, and less predictable tales that tend to end up in a radically different place than where they began. Stories like “Emma Zunz” and “The Man on the Threshold”, for example, end in such a way that the reader cannot take the previous narrative arch at face value. Other tales like “The Wait” and “The Theologians” gradually begin to call attention to themselves, as if the process of reading was in some way informing the plot. Rather than the big explosions of Fictions, then, The Aleph more carefully develops its narratives in a highly self-conscious way. Readers are required to diagnose not only what the story is about substantively, but also how it is being used to convey that substance.

Teasing out this relationship between content and form is the locus of The Aleph. It is a bit of a high wire act, at times gleefully rewarding and at others, too tedious to tolerate. Relative to Fictions, it is also more intellectually demanding, which is a problem because, vis-a-vis the reader, Borges is always the better intellectual. Some stories — such as “Averroes’ Search” and, especially, “The Writing of the God” — are simply inscrutable. Other stories — like “Ibn-Hakam Murdered in His Labyrinth” — come off as hopelessly bookish B-sides from Fictions.

But even still, the collection works up to a couple of high points that are well worth the investment and time. “The Zahir” and “The Aleph” anchor opposite ends of the The Aleph and complement one another in thought-provoking capacities. Both stories begin with a funeral and end with the discovery of an object. In “The Zahir” this object is so singular that it invades the mind of its possessor at the expense of all other considerations; in “The Aleph”, by contrast, the object is the total convergence of all things, a complete snapshot of every in the world. Borges includes enough ancillary window dressing around the two tales — and makes their counterbalancing roles evident enough — to illicit from the reader a nice range of musings.

So The Aleph ends on a pleasant trick, even if it never quite measures up to the unhampered brilliance of Fictions. It is a more mature and measured work than Borges’ earlier volume, but it takes far fewer risks and at times reads as though the author is getting hemmed in by is own metaphysically complex understanding of literature. I liked the project and the end result; the only occasional problem was the process.

Rating: 7 / 10

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The Melancholy of Resistance


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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Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids

nip the buds shoot

Given the relatively delicate and pristine works Japanese authors tend to produce, Nip the Buds is a surprising shock to the system; this spare-nothing parable of broken children in a broken system is, really, all about the adults who abandon them. The portrait is anything but flattering.

Kezaburo Oe / Japanese / 1958 / 192 pages
Translated by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama

It is a truth that has long fascinated artists of the written word: large scale events bear down-ticket, smaller scale implications. In the realm of large events, perhaps none are more fundamentally stupefying and paradigm-shifting than wars. Generations of young people die, geopolitical boundaries are overhauled, autocrats come and democrats go, and the very social fabrics of countries are rent in two. The microcosmic implications are clear: there’ll be no food at dinner, no brother coming home, portraits of beloved leaders must be taken down from the walls, the mail service moves painfully slow, people move out of cities and into the countryside; the list is endless.

Forsaking the grand vistas perhaps more aptly rendered by cinematic treatment, authors of novels seem rather to gravitate toward this smaller side of warfare. All Quiet on the Western Front and The Return of the Soldier are simple stories about simple men who meet predictably tragic ends. Heinrich Böll and W. G. Sebald were concerned less with Germany’s role in World War II then they were the effects this conflict had on the relationship between fathers and sons and the capacity of people to recall painful memories. Chroniclers of war in Eastern Europe like Schulz, Kundera, and Kristof opt for the domestic over the geopolitical, and novels emerging from other traditions — like A Bend in the River and Miramar — also focus narrow lenses on otherwise broader conflicts to capture arresting snapshots of one single piece of the puzzle.

To an extent, the same strategy is employed by one of Japan’s preeminent authors — Kenzaburo Oe — in his harrowing Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids: during a war, a small group of reformatory boys have to fend for themselves in a rural village once they’ve been abandoned by their adult supervisors. But I get the sense that Oe has sectioned off for himself a smaller piece of the pie not in an effort to make his narrative task more manageable, but rather to use it as a microcosmic representation of broader dynamics. Indeed, his subject is the war itself and all of the problems of allegiance, judgment, and collective action it draws out of people. He doesn’t need to tell the whole story because the tiny set piece he’s crafted is just as useful as any other, hypothetical piece he could have crafted. His localized story is reflective of national symptoms; given the horrifying nature of the story, this makes for a truly unsettling realization.

To begin, consider which social groups you’d protect in the event your country was under attack. Women and children, sure, but what about “reformatory” children, or those kids who were behaving so badly in routine social settings that they were removed altogether and shipped off to a boot camp in the mountains? Would anyone really remember or care about these kids when the bombs started dropping? Not likely. Nip the Buds opens with such a group of delinquent youth being evacuated from their school and marched off to a village, where they’ll be looked after while their teachers / overseers / guards run off to fight for the nationalist cause. Except when they get to the village, the head tribesman doesn’t want them and sends them off to the next group of huts up the road. Same story there. And then again at the next place. The reader is dropped into the middle of the group after they’ve been denied lodging at several towns. Some of the boys have attempted (and failed at) escape, one boy is seriously ill with a stomach ache, morale is low, the situation is tense.

At the end of the road — many days’ walk into secluded wilderness — their marshals finally find a “receptive” set of villagers willing to take in the boys. But they end up sequestering them in a barn with only the barest of food and clothing rations. The boys must work hard labor during the day’s noontime heat and are given little rest or hospitality. The one child’s stomach ailment increases in severity, no doctor is sent for, and the boys awake on the second morning to discover that their comrade has died. This instills in the villagers a fear of a possible plague. They implement a crude form of quarantine whereby they leave the village entirely, blockade the boys inside, and leave no note of explanation. The implicit savagery of their situation gradually dawns on the boys: if there is a plague, they’ll all die without assistance and the villagers will eventually return to clean up the bodies. If there isn’t a plague, they’ll return anyway and coerce them back into their servile existence.

It is against this sinister backdrop that the boys are left to their own devices in the village for a number of days. The first-person (but anonymous) narrator is one of the older boys and his younger brother is also a part of the group. The narrator finds a young female in one of the abandoned homes whom he takes as a lover at the same time that the younger brother finds a stray dog that he befriends and cares for. The boys scavenge for food in the houses and, eventually, learn to hunt in the woods. Life is not idyllic, but it becomes bearable as the boys’ familiarity with one another gradually deepens. They stockpile a large amount of food and hold an impromptu festival with a large bonfire, singing, and dancing.

The situation is too tenuous to sustain itself, however. The younger brother’s dog gets excited during the festival and accidentally bites the older brother’s girlfriend. She takes ill almost immediately and dies the next day. The dog is labeled a carrier of disease and the narrator must restrain his younger brother as the other boys kill the dog and bury its body. The younger brother goes fleeing into the woods and is not seen again. In many respects, this is the central — and by far the most effective — scene of the novel. It breaks the narrator’s resolve, the group’s camaraderie, and the reader’s heart all at once. About this time, the villagers return. The boys are a group divided amongst themselves and are in no position to stand up to the patronizing head tribesman. He offers them safe passage to the next village and a bit of food if they swear that they’ll never speak to anyone of their abandonment. One by one, they all take the deal. The narrator, however, hardened by their betrayal and the events of the past few days, adamantly refuses to aid the villagers in their negligence. The villagers get angry and chase him into the woods, where he meets an uncertain fate. Nip the Buds breaks off like a snapped string of an instrument with the narrator fleeing into the dark underbrush.

Tying all the parable’s threads into their broader geopolitical context would take a better historian than I, but it is obvious that Oe is not as concerned with children at play as much as he is with deeper issues of authority and allegiance. And rather than tackling the typical Japanese literary problem of judging how far to accede to cultural influences from the West, Oe is instead drilling down to dynamics existing solely between the citizens and leaders of Japan. This is a parable about a domestic battle over the soul of Japan as it emerged from the throes of a royal dynasty — not the external military  battle its inhabitants were fighting against the West. Nip the Buds is also not a novel about childhood in the same way that, say, A High Wind in Jamaica or The Lord of the Flies are novels about childhood. Kids do bad things, sure. But even bad kids deserve better than what the protagonist receives in this novel. We are invited to think about why.

I’ve been working my way through the Japanese canon this spring and Nip the Buds is a surprising and rewarding read, despite its scant size and breakneck pacing. It is also among the earliest works of an author who has gone on to overhaul his literary stylings and themes on multiple occasions and, eventually, won a Nobel Prize in 1994. I think this novel is a useful addition to one’s stock and I imagine I’ll be returning to the Oe oeuvre in short order.

Rating: 7 / 10 

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His Dark Materials

his dark materials

These three novels are young adult fantasy fiction at its finest; more insightful and liberal-minded than The Chronicles of Naria and far more exciting than The Lord of the Rings, the His Dark Materials trilogy is a fine, epic story that orients its young readers toward a lifetime of high literature consumption.

Philip Pullman / British / 1995-2000 / 1088 pages

I read quite a lot when I was a young child, but I don’t much remember the tone, timbre, and trajectory of those early novels. I recall there being a great deal of problem solving in The Boxcar Children and The Hardy Boys serialized books. I vaguely remember the miniature battles and long journeys of the personified animals in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series as well as the various excitements embodied in books like The Westing Game, Shiloh, The View from Saturday, and James and the Giant Peach. Then there came that infamous liminal period when children begin to read books that treat with “serious” subjects: The Giver and its presentation of a dystopian cult; Number the Stars and its introduction to The Holocaust; Bridge to Terabithia with its revelation that children can die; To Kill a Mockingbird with its discussions of racism and regionalism; and The Outsiders, where one learns that other children are coming of age in considerably different circumstances than oneself. At the tail end of this stage, you begin to encounter the books that push you into high school and the realm of more formal literary studies. Probably you read some of Steinbeck’s and Salinger’s simpler novels as well as Orwell’s more allegorical work. Maybe you remember reading The Phantom Tollbooth or The Lord of the Flies. 

It was around this time that I became substantially preoccupied with Philip Pullman’s masterful His Dark Materials trilogy. I would venture the assertion that no other “young adult” work left such a profound mark on my book-reading childhood and, perhaps with the exception of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Phantom Tollbooth, no other work so thoroughly oriented me toward an adult life of serious reading. Pullman’s trilogy was recently released as a single, mammoth tome by the good people at Everyman’s Library and I availed myself of the opportunity to indulge in the text’s abundant riches once again. I’m pleased to say that it holds up well to a second reading some 10 years removed.

His Dark Materials might aptly be described as “fantasy” fiction, but there are a number of realist, scientific, and theological (or, perhaps, anti-theological) aspects present as well. At it’s core, the trilogy is a story of a young girl, Lyra Belacqua, whose journey into womanhood has cosmic ramifications. This journey is one that passes through several dimensions (temporal, geographic, and moral) and ranges across multiple parallel universes (including the land of the dead), where different types of humans, angels, spirits, and animals stand in bizarre relation to one another. There are compasses that foretell the future, knives that cut through the fabric of space and time, self-conscious “elementary particles” that function like protons on steroids, ghosts that eat souls, demons that speak, gypsies that fight alongside armored polar bears, and diamond-backed cows that travel by jamming their right-angled legs into huge round tree seeds and rolling around upon them as if they were wheels. Did I mention the scientists, priests, politicians, and academics that populate a nontrivially large share of the trilogy’s pages? Have I lost you entirely?

One of the reasons the trilogy succeeds so well is Pullman’s ability to gradually introduce these vastly disparate elements in measured, considered time. His pacing is almost always impeccable. The trilogy begins with The Golden Compass and takes place in a fictional world that appears to be very similar to our “regular” world, but set back technologically by about a half-century. In this world, every human is endowed with a demon, or physical outward manifestation of her soul. The demon is an animal of some form and represents the personality traits of the individual: royalty possess graceful demons (like cheetahs), servants have subservient demons (like dogs), free spirited people have birds as demons, crafty personalities have monkeys or snakes, and so forth. The female protagonist — Lyra — frequently carries on conversations with her demon, a mirror of herself, that would typically be relegated to internal monologues. This turns out to be a nifty narrative trick that only begins to wear thin well into the third book.

Lyra comes from good stock: a father who is an ambitious statesman-academic and a mother who is a highly-placed operative in the all-powerful Christian Church. However, she is raised as an orphan by the scholars of Jordan College — a subsidiary of Oxford — and is given the gift of a mysterious golden compass that points to the direction of truth. Using this compass, she sets sail for the North Pole on a quest to find a schoolyard friend of hers who has recently gone missing. The narrative accelerates rapidly at this point, bringing Lyra into contact with an increasingly bizarre menagerie of characters (including her long-estranged mother and father) as she makes her way north. She is traveling in a world in flux: the Church and the academics are colliding in their search for a cosmic dust, which the Church argues is the source of original sin and the academics argue is the building block of sentient matter. Lyra’s father meets her in the north, where he has been laboring to produce a contraption to tear a hole in the fabric between parallel universes. He succeeds in spectacular fashion and Lyra hesitatingly follows him through a portal before the first volume of the trilogy abruptly ends.

While Pullman sets the lay of the land with vim and vigor in The Golden Compass, he begins the second volume — The Subtle Knife  — in more measured fashion and takes the time to really drill down his thematic aims. There is clearly a Church-Science dichotomy at work in the trilogy as members of the two groups seek out the nature of this cosmic dust for diametrically opposed reasons: the Church to squash it as heretical blasphemy and the scientists as an intellectual curiosity. Somewhat famously, Pullman has a bone to pick with organized religion and he uses Lyra’s series of moral quandaries to draw religion’s failings in increasingly stark terms. In the second book, she pairs up with a young lad named Will and the two of them are faced with a series of obstacles where — disregarding the conflicting advice of two opposing sets of authority figures — they have to rely on their own highly attuned (but nevertheless undeveloped) sense of right and wrong in order to succeed. Whereas Compass was a linearly progressing roller coaster with a clear trajectory, Knife is a more meandering (nay, searching) quest where the protagonists and the readers realize that directives are misleading, truths are false, and the ends are increasingly invoked to justify the means.

The scale of the narrative explodes exponentially in the third volume — The Amber Spyglass — which forsakes entirely the carefully realist construction of the second book for a scattershot blend of heady intellectualism, confusing action sequences, pitch-perfect renderings of emotions, spot-on reinterpretations of ancient mythologies, and irritatingly glossed-over plot points. While Spyglass contains many of the trilogy’s low points, it also includes some of the best, most arresting scenes in the entire 1000-page affair. At one point, in the course of hopping through different parallel universes, Lyra and Will venture into the land of the dead and it is a truly horrifying sequence. Pullman convincingly depicts elation, exhausting and a range of other emotions, including those surrounding the trilogy’s bittersweet and complex denouement.

Without a doubt, His Dark Materials is an arresting read from beginning to end when one is a young adult. After one has grown up a bit, the cracks are somewhat more apparent: the novel suffers from some pedantic narration, overly specific explication, overblown dialogue, and a climax that is, well, blown. But although I’d argue that the trilogy accomplishes the most in a younger reader, I’d also advocate that the novels be read more broadly by older individuals as well. Pullman’s narrative tools are many, deft, and often excellent and he tends to exhibit a subtly of skill — especially in his many head nods toward classical mythology — that are almost surely lost on younger readers. His plot still elicits strong emotions from the reader and it’s a treat to leaf through a young adult novel with a strong female lead. Although Lyra doesn’t always come off the better in direct comparisons to her male counterpart, His Dark Materials is Lyra’s story and she is always at the helm. Indeed, should I have a daughter of my own in the future, I would be straining at the bit for the day to come when she’d be old enough to handle the tenacity of Pullman’s darker moments. Lyra is a figure to admire.

And I know nothing of contemporary young adult fiction that comes after this watershed epic, so I have very little against which I’d weigh it. The first volume of the Harry Potter saga was published right in the middle of the period in which Pullman was working to publish the three installments of His Dark Materials and — despite appearing to borrow some source material from him — the boy wizard certainly seems to have rode roughshod over the trilogy’s popularity. Other young adult lodestones featuring strong female leads are (presumably) too much smut to consider seriously (ahem, Twilight) or too dissimilar to make for a meaningful comparison (Hunger Games). Like I said, I don’t know. But I’d have a hard time thinking up a better, more striking story than Lyra’s. Is His Dark Materials the ideal typical young adult novel? It certainly was for me.  

Rating: 8 / 10

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The Late Mattia Pascal

The prose isn’t going to blow you away, but this fine work by a little-known Nobel laureate infuses the age-old presumed-dead-but-came-back-to-life trope with a hefty dose of philosophical musings on the nature of identity.

Luigi Pirandello / Italian / 1904 / 272 pages
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

We all know the story. Guy and girl fall in love; something happens, like the outbreak of war, and the two are separated; at some point the girl mistakenly presumes the guy is dead and, painful as it may be, moves on with her life; after many trials and tribulations, the guy eventually makes his way back to the girl; depending on how charitable the narrator is at this point, the guy is either welcomed back with open arms or begrudgingly shunned on account of her jealous interim beau. Thematically, the narrative is usually painted in broad, overly romanticized brushstrokes and readers are bludgeoned about the face with obtuse lessons on the nature of love and fidelity. Put differently, simplicity abounds. Every other year, a major Hollywood blockbuster along these lines is released to huge commercial success as the masses gorge themselves on this intellectually inbred material. When they leave the theater, the members of the audience might think for a few minutes about the contours of their own romantic attachment. They doubt their resolve. They are glad that they don’t have to fight in World War II.


Enter Luigi Pirandello with a fresh perspective (actually, given this novel’s 1904 publication date, I’m not sure there’s really anything “fresh” in the approach; the fact that Pirandello’s twist on the presumed-dead-but-come-back-to-life story line has been around for a hundred years makes novels like The Notebook seem particularly egregious; but I digress). The perspective is fresh because Pirandello creates a “dead” man who, surprisingly, doesn’t mind being dead. Mattia Pascal has recently lost his two infant daughters to illness and his marriage with his wife is completely spoiled. They reside with his horrible mother-in-law (who Pirandello suggests is a witch with 50-50 probability) and can barely make ends meet on the scant income he brings in from his job as a librarian at a library that no one ever visits. His own beloved mother and brother have moved away and are happily living their separate lives in isolation. He gets to the point where he can no longer tolerate the miserable status quo.

So Mattia shoots off to a gambling house in a far away Italian city without telling any of his relatives. He sets up camp for several weeks and, due to inexplicable luck, quickly wins enough money at the roulette table that he’ll never have to work another day in his life. His plan is to return home, slam the money down on the kitchen table, and make it explicitly clear to anyone who will listen that he’s the one who wears the pants in the house and hereafter will no longer be taking guff. While he’s on the train home, however, he picks up a newspaper with an obituary announcing his own suicide back in his hometown. Apparently the body of another man (who may or may not have resembled Mattia Pascal) was pulled out of a river and promptly identified as Mattia by his wife and mother-in-law. He sees an open door and runs through it: at the next train station, he disembarks, gets his beard and hair trimmed down to nothing, and catches a new train in the opposite direction. He invents a new name for himself, buys new clothes, and — for the next two years — spends his time flitting about continental Europe touring the major capital cities.

Eventually he tires of this wandering and settles down as a tenant in a rented bedroom of a family comprised of a retired teacher and his young, unmarried daughter. He falls in love with the woman, grows comfortable in the city, and turns his thinking toward settling down, buying a house of his own, and obtaining a marriage certificate. He’s stopped short in these musings by an obvious fact, however: as a man who has renounced a true identity and constructed a false one, he must live entirely off the grid or people will begin to ask questions. He cannot put a name down on a housing purchase, for example, and he can never pay taxes. Mattia must buy his meals and pay his rent in cash so as not to leave a trail of receipts by which he might be traced. Gradually, he begins to realize that, far from the freedom he thought he was going to win, he’s actually boxed himself into a circumscribed existence that he must work to defend with an increasingly elaborate network of lies and deceptions.

Eventually he returns to his hometown and receives a (predictably) unpleasant welcome.

But the gist of the story is Mattia’s conflicts over his own identity. He can’t live the life he wants, so he bails out and constructs a new life; but the very fact that he’s abandoned a past life virtually eliminates the freedoms he thought he was buying himself with his new identity. Pirandello suggests that people are fundamentally unable to change the basic aspects of their character. And even if they could construct a thoroughly sound set of lies upon which to base a new existence, Mattia experiences such a lack of emotional connection to his invented past that it almost hardly seems worth the trouble; in order to feel rooted to a history, it needs to be the real one. Fabricated stories about births in foreign countries, affable grandfathers who took us to art museums, and a childhood predicated on transience might trick our listeners, but will rob us of our own core.

The writing in The Late Mattia Pascal is not going to blow you away. Pirandello frequently takes us inside Mattia’s head and his thoughts are a cluttered and highly repetitive run of anxieties, confusions, and aspirations. This can get old after a while. Additionally, Pirandello is not so concerned with setting the scene and describing the environment. Rather, his characters just kind of run into one another in generic spaces that might be located in major European metropolises or somewhere in your own backyard. But some of this probably arises from the facts that the novel was not Pirandello’s chief medium (indeed, it was theater) and his focus was more on philosophical and emotional considerations. This is why the novel seems, well, novel despite its all-too-familiar narrative arch. This is also why The Late Mattia Pascal comes off like a masterwork when compared to another Italian novel about an unhappily married man by Pirandello’s contemporary Italo Svevo. That book is called Zeno’s Conscience and I would never recommend it to anyone. Whereas Zeno is a near-total narrative disaster populated by capricious and flat characters whose motivations never seem clear, Mattia Pascal is at least decently funny, decently thought-provoking, and decently written. That might not sound like the best sales pitch in the world, but I think it suffices: if you ever find yourself working through the Italian canon, be sure you place Pirandello on the list, but not before you’ve knocked out some other Italian heavyweights like Levi, Bassani, and Calvino.

Rating: 7 / 10

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The Name of the Rose

Pairing big ideas with a barnburner of a plot, this book is typically billed as a seriously intellectualized version of The Da Vinci Code; if you like your murder mysteries set in 1300s monastic Italy and infused with critical discussions of Catholic doctrine (which, after the fact, it seems that I kind of do), then you’ll no doubt enjoy The Name of the Rose.

Umberto Eco / Italian / 1980 / 560 pages
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

This novel is omnibus. Heretics burn, monks sermonize, politics are palavered, the saints are eulogized, history and philosophy are trotted out in between the discovery of corpses, there are visions both dreamt and hallucinated, arguments both casual and deadly, and books both banned and holy. This is a novel written by a scholar who is unafraid to truck in the mundane and the simple; a renounced Catholic who brings a steadily critical eye to bear on church dogma; a semiotician whose symbolic proclivities range from the crass to the gorgeous. The narration is, at times, forcefully propelled and speckled with witty dialogue; at other points, the prose wanders off into overly long and self-indulgent theological tracts. And, oh, the discussions about old books! At nearly every conversational turn, the characters rattle off a litany of infamous old texts and literary allusions. Eco weaves deep contexts and subtexts in with more standard narrative techniques and the effect is generally well-executed.

While not a particularly stellar prose stylist (nor, for that matter, the most accommodative writer in town), I still give Eco high marks for his book: this is an intellectual and serious work that succeeds in what I might call the “administration” of the various disparate elements contained in its pages. To compare it with its most immediate competitor, I’d say that it comes off as a somewhat more successful effort than My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. Also, to reach a bit further, I’d say that it occasionally bears striking similarities to The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann in its management of philosophies, dialogue, and atmosphere. Mann wrote a better book than Eco, but I’d heartily recommend both novels to many of my literary friends.

The plot of Rose is a thing to behold. The Catholic church in the 1300s was rife with infighting between its various priestly sects — the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Benedictines, etc. While today these groups persist side-by-side in relative harmony, such pluralism was not exactly among the hallmarks of Catholicism in the 1300s. Debates on dogma (such as interpreting the gospels, figuring out what Jesus intended when he said this or that obscure phrase) were of high consequence: the losers were typically pilloried, tortured, burned at the stake, or worse. To be on the wrong side of the papal stance on a particular issue (however well-intentioned) was to be branded a heretic and excommunicated. These debates didn’t get any easier to navigate when realpolitik bled into the theological. Oftentimes kings would play sects of priests off against the pope as a means of jockeying for more power over the poor, religious hordes under their purview. In this shifting, capricious landscape, the beliefs that could damn a person on Tuesday may well be his saving grace on Thursday … that is, if he hadn’t yet been burned alive.

Eco skewers this historical ridiculousness with an inventive plot. The pope is looking to rectify his beliefs with those of a wayward priestly sect and, in order to do this, proposes a summit to hear out both sides of the argument before eventually settling on a position (ostensibly, at least) upon which everyone can agree. The priests, however, don’t want to meet the pope on his home turf; they suspect foul play and aren’t eager to be decried as heretics. To this end, then, a neutral meeting place is chosen: a monastery far off in the countryside where the monks have no personal stake in the doctrinal debate. The man who  will oversee the event is named William, a powerful British monk who is famous for his even temperament, analytical mind, and humorous repartee. The book opens with William’s arrival at the monastery a few days before the summit is set to begin. He is immediately confronted with the first of what ends up being a series of murders within the monastery’s walls. His task is to identify the murderer and set the monastery to rights before the two delegations arrive.

The book is as much about ideas as it is an historical whodunit. The chief doctrinal argument that must be settled is whether or not priests (and, by extension, the entire Catholic hierarchy) should pursue lives of poverty (because Jesus was poor) or material wealth (to bring greater glory to God’s institutions on earth). Eco delves impressively deep into Catholic theology and biblical interpretation to provide for the reader both sides of this argument. As the text plays out, it becomes rather clear, however, which stance is the more justifiable in Eco’s mind. Other peripheral questions are also raised, debated, and tentatively resolved. What challenges does rigorously analytical philosophy pose to God’s grace? Did Jesus laugh and should religious adherents indulge in laughter from time to time? What can European Christians learn from the scholarship of African and Middle Eastern Muslims? What is the purpose of a library as a private, cloistered amalgamation of knowledge?

I tend to struggle with murder mysteries, so I was glad when Rose turned out to adhere only very loosely to that genre. The fun of reading the novel comes in linking the physical life-and-death struggles to the metaphysical and theological struggles. Eco’s point is well-taken and stands as true today as it did in the 1300s: ideas, no matter how abstract, govern our world in ways as tangible as the physical laws of nature.

Rating: 7 / 10

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Amsterdam Stories

What begins as a collection of nostalgic tales of youth ends in a rather beautifully-rendered meditation on the place of humanity in a broader constellation of forces that are out of its control; this slim volume is well-written throughout, but sometimes tends toward the eccentric.

Nescio (or J. H. F. Grönloh) / Dutch / 1909-42 / 155 pages
Translated from the Dutch by Damion Searls

I’m by no means an inherently nostalgic person, but I’ll grant that there are some periods of my life that I wouldn’t mind revisiting for a handful of days. Specifically my undergraduate years, where my friends and I trucked and bartered in big (and admittedly poorly specified) ideas, where I could wander out of a philosophy class and into a class on evolutionary biology, where I had not yet boxed myself into a career as an academic and where my future prospects were hopelessly vague and uncertain. There’s a charming innocence to that period of life where your thoughts and your aspirations are cosmic in their character; I’m not talking about the trite invincibility of youth so much as I am the enrapturing experience of engaging in a broad set of new ideas with new friends. Later down the line, it gets harder to awaken these feelings. Even those of us who strive to stay intellectually awake and curious have to come to terms with the reality of jobs, families, and, despite our best efforts to resist, the homogenizing dynamics that attend our passage into adulthood.

The Dutch author Nescio understood this rather well, it seems. Not only do his stories realistically capture the grown man’s longing for the days of late-night poetry readings, long meditative walks, and the initial brushstrokes of art instruction; his work also charts in rather thorough detail the process by which most of us awake from this utopian existence and gradually come to terms with the day-to-day pressures of adulthood. In his short stories, poets become businessmen, painters turn into shop owners, and deadbeat adolescents who daily live on the largesse of others are eventually turfed out onto the curb and left to fend for themselves. His youths are also put to the task of confronting much broader forces such as death, the passage of time, foreign occupation during war, and the ever-consistent sunrise that marks the beginning of each day. There is a deep sadness in the growing-up process, but Nescio’s pen is light; indeed, there were many points in this short story collection where I found myself laughing. There were other points at which I silently shook my head in admiration of Nescio’s terse-but-well-honed prose. At times, I must admit, I also arched an eyebrow in befuddlement. Amsterdam Stories is a unique and eccentric addition to one’s library, a work that I would highly recommend to readers looking to get outside of the standard Western European canon. Considering the fact that this collection was heretofore untranslated in English until last month, interested parties can definitely get the drop on the rest of the English-speaking world if they rush to their local bookseller today.      

Amsterdam Stories includes many shorter, fragmentary works, but the main bulk of the material is confined in four longer pieces. The first two (“The Freeloader”  and “Young Titans”) focus on a group of young men (writers, painters, poets, and mooches) living in and around Amsterdam in the early 1900s. The narration is written in retrospective, which allows the narrator to interject insights that seem wise beyond the years of the characters. Their plights are typical, I suppose, for their age. They are excited about the future, they want to usurp the system of their parents that relegates them to workers without time to spend thinking about big ideas and abstract concepts. In the first story, the freeloader is the purest incarnation of this idea. He is someone who, while exceedingly conversant in many things, is completely unable to provide for himself. He looks for handouts from his friends and, in the worst times, begs for money from his wealthy parents (who presumably got that way by working the sorts of jobs he so ardently despises). The second story revisits many of these same characters as they age. The narrator is forced into a series of awkward interactions with his old friends as they move into adulthood.  He discovers that their previous meditations on time, nature, and art have been replaced by significantly more circumscribed concerns about business relationships, hourly wages, and providing for their families. He is ultimately left to conclude that these mellowing and maturing processes run much deeper in the human mind than the fleeting ideals of youth. He ends the story by posing to the reader this observation: “And so everything takes its little course, and woe to those who ask: Why?”

Nescio’s writing in these stories is occasionally sublime. He opens “The Freeloader” with a line that, from what I can gather in the introductory material to the book, has become one of the most famous lines in all of Dutch literature: “Except for the man who thought Sarphatistraat was the most beautiful place in Europe, I’ve never met anyone more peculiar than the freeloader.” You don’t have to know anything about Sarphatistraat to realize that Nescio is poking fun at the limited perspective of his textbook “peculiar” person. And you don’t have to read much further into the story before you realize that this type of well-crafted line is a dime-a-dozen in Nescio’s prose. In this sense, he reminded me a bit of Lovers or Something Like It by Florian Zeller or even the best that Hemingway had to offer: these are writers that tend toward the pithy and insightful. It’s a bit of a high wire act, but Nescio (and Zeller) pull it off more frequently (and more convincingly) than did Hemingway.

I would venture to say that the third story — “The Little Poet” — is almost a disaster, however. There are some bizarre magical realist tendencies in the story (both God and the devil put in personified appearances) and the narrative itself wanders back and forth thematically. Initially, the story appears to explore the same thematic material as the ones that precede it, just with a different cast and time period. As it progresses, however, it turns into a heartwarming story about the love that emerges between a man and the sister of his wife (a bit weird, but whatever). At the end, the story runs off the rails and terminates in a fit of dementia, the birth of an illegitimate child, and the destruction of a young woman’s artistic ambitions. The treatment here is light, as it is everywhere throughout Amsterdam Stories, but the substance of the story is dark to the core.

Nescio returns to his otherwise fine form in the fourth story, “Insula Dei.” Here the two main characters are older men residing in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands during World War II. Damaged supply lines and wartime shortages have created an environment of illness, hunger, and extreme poverty. The story picks up with two older friends as they meet for (imitation, rationed) coffee at one of the few coffeehouses in the city that has not been forced to close its doors. Over the course of multiple conversations, they talk about their shared past, the bleak prospects of their future, and the seemingly unshakable presence of a foreign army. Nescio, who was born in 1882 and died in the 1960s, lived through both world wars and his rendering of the wartime civilian environment is moving. The story is also a profound exploration of how one person can leave his or her mark in a world shaped by much, much broader and more powerful forces. The two men, who are writers, thought that they would have left their mark on society after their death; in an era where it was too expensive to simply print new books, however, they are forced to examine their contributions in different areas of their lives. Their reminisces are both entertaining and sad.

Nescio was never a professional writer and this short story collection encapsulates every “major” work he ever finished. To an extent, the fact that he was effectively a hobbyist lends the book a fresh air; this is a man who only wrote when he felt truly compelled to say something important. Many of the shorter and more fragmentary contributions aren’t great, but they are so short that readers can easily pass through them in minutes. And the thrill of reading “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans” — two truly great pieces — should not be missed.

Rating: 8 / 10

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

This swashbuckling proletarian tale of materialism and morality employs both unpretentious prose and well-honed narration; it is as much a period piece about 1920s Mexico as it is a universal exploration of human greed.

B. Traven / German? Mexican? / 1927 / 308 pages

Not much is known about B. Traven, but I can tell you this: the man stood with the working class. The rhetoric of today’s so-called “class warfare” pales in comparison to the seedy depictions of the land-owning gentry that line the pages of his The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And Traven isn’t only taking to task the oil and gold barons of the early 1900s; the Catholic Church, imperialist Spain, and American tourists are also made to suffer under his sharp prose. In a world he describes as “primitive” and “violent” the laws of material and the laws of politics are conflated, the will of God and the privations of priests are blurred into a moral morass where the lowest common denominator is, simply, money. The people who have money want even more money and are willing to kill, subjugate, trick, deceive, and manipulate to get it. Those who don’t have it are simply lost, relegated to cogs in a broader capitalist machinery from which they cannot escape.

To a certain extent, this is all low-hanging fruit. The geopolitical and socioeconomic development of Latin America — and of Mexico, in particular — is rife with other countries’ mistakes. The Spanish sent the Inquisition; the United States sent their extractive, gold-prospecting land-grabbers; and even France and Portugal played their dastardly roles. In any country around the world, you’re likely to find a smaller subset of the population with its undue portion of the wealth, regardless of its derivation. We can make no new hay from additional characterizations of the rich as ruthless, calculating cutthroats. We’ve heard it all before.

But the truly great and insightful observation in Traven’s novel is that we, the rest of humanity, are really at our cores no different from the wealthy. Give any of us a bit of money, lighten for any of us the day-to-day grind of survival, and our thoughts turn instinctively toward baser interests. He intelligently explores this dynamic through the seemingly random bestowal of wealth on truly impoverished characters in his novel. Using the historical reality of 1920s gold prospecting in the Sierra Madre, Traven chronicles in great detail what happens to us and to our relationships with others when, somewhat unexpectedly, there’s money up for grabs. His prognosis is dire: with a small taste of wealth, it is impossible to be satiated. Whereas before a good day’s wage was something to take to the bank, with the discovery of a bit of gold comes the unsubstantiated promise of limitless gain. Repeatedly in Treasure, we see characters lose all sense of perspective in the glint of gold. Repeatedly, we are instructed that material aspirations are diametrically opposed to moral goodness and dissatisfaction with our lot in life is a spiritual failing.

This gets heavy-handed. Traven doesn’t really let up on the gas and he seems to abjure entirely the idea that hard-working and honest people do, in fact, sometimes improve their station. I’m willing to forgive the oversight based on its historical context, however. I don’t imagine that prospecting for precious metals in the Sierra Madre was likely to bring one into contact with too many wholesome characters and we have to remember that, in Traven’s world, the people with the money and the guns rode roughshod over the rest of the population. Treasure reads like a fictionalized and slightly more entertaining Communist Manifesto for a new era and another continent. While hyperbolic by today’s standards, this was once the stuff of social reform. His writing does not exactly mirror, say, the muckraking vitriol of his contemporary, Upton Sinclair, but it is clear that somewhere in Traven’s background is a deep, compassionate, and almost journalistic engagement with the Mexican countryside. Treasure is populated with many asides and parables that would have emerged organically from an extended period of residency in the country. While Traven’s nationality is somewhat debated, this is clearly a Mexican novel.

Having made it this far into the review with only scant references to the plot, I would be remiss if I were to draw it to a close without first giving the reader at least a hint at its content. Three men meet one another in a boardinghouse and agree to go prospecting for gold. The book charts their journey to the mine, their time while there, and their eventual return. Along the way, they swap stories about bandits, corrupt politicians and priests, dangerous soldiers, and pretty women. They run into a number of interesting characters (of highly variable moral rectitude) and eventually meet rather distinct fates. Indeed, part of the joy of reading Treasure is its closing 30 pages where Traven wraps up the loose ends with such focused irony that it borders on the hilarious.

You’re not going to get your mind blown with this novel, but it’s well worth your time. Plus, you’ll get to ask yourself the great hypothetical question: what would you do if you were suddenly looking at a million dollars with the promise of more?

Rating: 7 / 10

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The Ten Thousand Things

This ephemeral, atmospheric novel melds the occult with the objective, the vivacious with the virulent; in the end, however, Dermoût reminds us that all of these dichotomies dissolve into an ultimate commonality: the human.

Maria Dermoût / Dutch-Indonesian / 1955 / 208 pages
Translated from the Dutch by Hans Koning

There are very many colonial novels, some more innocuous than others. Though occasionally sinister under the cover, books such as A Passage to India, for example, or A House for Mr. Biswas manage to maintain at least a cordial veneer. Others are much darker in content, like The Heart of the Matter (which culminates in murder and suicide) or A Bend in the River (which dwells on the political violence inherent in many post-colonial transitions). And, of course, there is always the great purveyor of the darker side of British colonialism — Joseph Conrad — as well as his African foils Chinua Achebe and Ousmane Sembene. These colonial narratives are rife with tension, with occupiers versus occupied, and with us versus them mentalities. The two groups either mix poorly like oil and water or force themselves to assimilate, often with dire consequences. To some extent, the implicit contest is one about the locus of the human soul: is it in the educated Westerner with his science and his machines or in the naturalistic native with his collectivism and connection to the cosmos?

The stakes are thankfully not nearly so high in The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût, a Dutch-Indonesian colonial author whose book — were it not for the NYRB classics imprint — would almost certainly not be in wide circulation in the English-speaking world. The tensions here are more localized, less cosmic, and pertain to the common lot of mankind. How do I deal with my older (and superstitious)  relative? How do I cope with the death of my friend or of my son? These questions play themselves out against a colonial backdrop, yes, but Dermoût’s story is not racially or religiously driven.

To a large extent, the novel is instead predicated on the geography of a slightly fictionalized Dutch island in Indonesia. Dermoût goes through elaborate efforts to distinguish the “outer bay” from the “inner bay” from the island’s interior and there is something of a hardcore partition between the cast and plots that transpire in each of these areas. It also allows her the opportunity to develop in great detail the flora and fauna of each of these areas; indeed, part of the fun of reading the book is experiencing Dermoût’s substantial botanical and zoological chops. We are walked through the names and descriptions of different shells, many species of fish, and countless types of flowering plants. We see the cloud formations in the sky, hear the wind whipping through tropical-leaved trees, and feel the gentle yet persistent ebb of the tide. All of this contributes to an atmospheric work on par with The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann: whereas with Mann you can’t help but feel the crisp, cool air of the Alps, with Dermoût, there’s no way of dodging the preponderance of grand vistas populated by skittering organisms (both human and otherwise).

With all the beauty evidenced in the first dozen pages, one must guard against being lulled into a false sense of security. For this is a melancholic and subtly violent novel. We are not so terribly deep into the novel before we’re told that the “ten thousand things” of the title refer to a listing of one’s important possessions and experiences at the time of death. Over the course of the novel, several people will be murdered (all of them “off screen” so to speak) and the narration turns toward their surviving relatives to explore how they cope with the loss. These examinations are often heartbreaking. In the introduction to the volume, Hans Koning mentioned that when he first read the novel, he openly wept. At the risk of labeling Koning a bit of a sap, I should say that I don’t think most readers will react quite so strongly; even still, it is an emotionally arresting novel.

There is also something of the occult here. Due to the fact that the novel is about family life and, to that end, spends a lot of time discussing lineages and ancestors, I am reminded of the magical realist works of García Márquez (who also substantively dealt with “the family” rather often). But Dermoût is undertaking something a bit different; the ghosts of yore seem less magical, but more real. They are somehow intertwined with the very empirical, organic fabric of the island itself and fleeting glimpses of them populate most of the novel’s pages. There are elements of Christianity, Islam, and naturalistic agnosticism at work in this Indonesian society and they combine into a hyper-spiritualistic understanding of life, death, and their interaction. The murders, then, do violence not only to the empirical body, but also to the metaphysical threads that unite all the inhabitants of the island; unnatural, untimely death blots out the otherwise peaceful landscape.

Several reviewers have argued that The Ten Thousand Things is a work of idiosyncratic genius. I unequivocally agree with the first word, but find the veracity of the second difficult to appraise. By virtue of being idiosyncratic (a similar word I might employ is scattershot), Dermoût’s novel shoots most of my metrics to hell. It is beautiful to behold, quirky and unique. It is also a pleasant read in the sense that I like her characters quite a lot and I find myself (hypothetically, of course) responding in like ways to the situations with which they are confronted. But the novel jerks around a bit unexpectedly at times, most notably halfway through where Dermoût forsakes a sustained narrative arch she’s been developing for over 100 pages and launches into a fractured series of anecdotes for the next 100 before returning to the previous narrative in the concluding 8 pages. It is fairly difficult to wrestle with this additional material (especially because the main plot line is just so good) and it seems to cast some aspersions on earlier themes while at the same time intensifying other (comparatively minor) thematic elements. If you can safely navigate the bait-and-switch, it’s well worth gently coasting toward Demoût’s finish.

And, indeed, the end is delicate, measured, and sad. It is an altogether less explosive resolution than many novels dedicated to this subject matter and one is left with the conclusion that Dermoût was perhaps a more nuanced and intricate thinker on these points than many of her contemporaries. At any rate, this is a novel that should be read by more people and I’m thrilled that the NYRB classics imprint has done us such a service in returning it to a high quality and widely accessible format.

Rating: 6 / 10

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The Floating Opera

Barth’s first novel is a darkly entertaining and jumbled narrative of spouse-sanctioned infidelity, hyper-literate baseness, and crackpot nihilism; it reads almost like a grittier, more caustic Salinger novel.

John Barth / American / 1956 / 252 pages

The Floating Opera is more self-consciously “first novelish” than any other first novel I have read. Barth creates a first-person narrator who effectively begins the novel with: “Look, reader, I’ve never written a novel before, so this is going to be kind of rough, but just bear with me.” What proceeds is a more-or-less precise, but heavily jumbled, account of a very important day in the narrator’s life that relies on broad narrative arcs which swing wide of a strictly chronological progression. We, as readers, are often given bits of information (like names, places, events, etc.) before we get their contextualizing details. These missteps are chalked up to the author’s inexperience, but they are also, on another level, very effective dramatic devices. Of course, this is all a bit gimmicky, but I can dig it.

The narrative gradually settles down and some of the closing scenes are expertly and straightforwardly rendered in more traditional prose styling. It is at this juncture in the novel, however, that some truly ridiculous stuff transpires, so the narrative switch is something of a red herring. Indeed, there’s so much amorality (or perhaps immorality if I’m willing to cast that rhetorical stone) in The Floating Opera that one is almost deadened to the effects of the ultimate (gratuitously heinous) final decision undertaken by the narrator in the novel’s closing pages. Barth seems less concerned with the plausibility of characters’ actions than he is with their novelty. If it’s possible, the justification of these actions seems to fall even further down the list of Barth’s priorities and this all, in total, makes his work difficult to decipher. Somewhat repeatedly, we’re hit with the message that nothing is of value and no justification is meaningful; given the narrator’s fundamental grossness, this nihilistic response is not exactly sufficient motivation for the reader to stay engaged. But other positives abound.

On some level, Barth is concerned with analyzing (though not necessarily answering) questions related to the value of social conventions, interpersonal relationships, and, ultimately, life itself. His characters conduct interesting experiments in spouse-sanctioned infidelity (see above objections regarding plausibility), suicide (attempted, unsuccessfully), and mass murder (don’t worry, this is also unsuccessful and preposterous). The narrator has set for himself the task of meaningfully relating the circumstances that led up to his suicide attempt some years ago. This is a challenge for him as, we’ll soon discover, he hasn’t exactly spent his life seriously pondering the explanations behind and motivations for his behavior. It’s not until his father’s suicide (when the narrator is well into adulthood) that he’s finally forced to sit down and conduct an “inquiry” into life’s purpose. In the course of his meandering explanation, we learn about his father’s suicide, his mistress, his illegitimate child, his gerontological friendships, his World War I experiences, his law education and subsequent practice, and the “floating opera” talent show that comes to his small town and provides him with a grandiose means by which he hopes to take his own life.

All of this would make for heavy material (and, at times, it does) were it not for the jocular hilarity that Barth works into the narrative. The narrator exudes wit as much as he does erudition and the prose propels the novel along at a nice pace. Much like William Gaddis in A Frolic of His Own, Barth seems to exhibit a penchant for deftly satirizing the legal profession and many of his accounts of the court cases tried by the narrator are maddeningly ridiculous. The legal proceedings parallel the broader themes of the novel closely: court verdicts often hinge more on rhetorical flare and the judge’s biases than they do on some sort of objective appraisal of the facts. This line of thinking is made all the more dramatic when it comes to many of the narrator’s extralegal dilemmas. Why was he forced to stab a German soldier to death during World War I? Why did his father kill himself? Why is sex such a strong human motivation when it’s something of a base and animalistic activity? Despite all his efforts at framing these inquiries in rational terms, the narrator is forced into a cynical stance: nothing is inherently meaningful and life is worthless.

It is an uncreative crutch. Indeed, I found the narrator (despite his rhetorical flourishes) and many of the other characters (despite their infrequent charm) outright despicable creatures. I’m not a reader who must “relate” to characters in a novel before I’m willing to give it a high appraisal, but I must admit that this cast was overwhelmingly populated by bottom feeders. It becomes difficult to maintain your raptness when you routinely find yourself thinking “Yes, but no one would really do something so horrible!” or “Okay, but who would ever resort to that!?” This vileness is laid all the more bare in Barth’s second novel The End of the Road, which was packaged together with Opera and which I read as soon as I’d finished the first novel. (In The End, Barth has drafted a book with much less humor, more realism, and a similarly despicable cast. Here another love triangle, this time unsanctioned by the spouse, yields to a botched abortion and a similarly dissatisfying moral. The effect is grating and I came to the conclusion that The End was an objectively minor novel.)

But, as anyone who knows much about Barth will tell you, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road are not exactly the best points of entry to the man’s work. If he is famous at all, it’s for the much lengthier postmodern / speculative fiction novels The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy. I can’t say that my appetite has been whetted for more Barth, but I do highly recommend Opera as an often hilarious and darkly poignant meditation on age, life, and convention.

Rating: 7 / 10

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