Potter's Book Blog

Reviews of world literature from 1900 to the present.

Category: Western European

The Third Policeman

the third policeman

If you dropped Pale FireFictions, and A Modest Proposal into a blender, you might get something roughly akin to The Third Policeman once the blades had stopped whirring — but only just so. O’Brien’s work somehow manages to surpass this puréed synthesis in its hilarity, inventiveness, biting sarcasm, and faux erudition.

Flann O’Brien / Irish / 1967 / 212 pages

Brian O’Nolan (the writer behind the Flann O’Brien pen name) strikes me as being the worst kind of savant, the kind that knows he’s got you over a barrel and is going to keep you there while he messes with you. He knows more languages than you do, his vocabulary is more expansive; he’s cleverer than Swift, clearer than Joyce, and crankier than Bernhard. For some reason, he possesses a bizarrely adept understanding of physics that he’ll creatively employ in his narratives to, um, upend all the laws of physics. Like a verbose scholar, he’ll pile into his manuscripts footnote after footnote in reference to entire bodies of knowledge that don’t really exist, but appear eminently plausible at first blush. O’Nolan will wow you with his hilarious asides, wordplays, metaphors, and puns while simultaneously drawing into question your ability to adequately grasp the other 80% of his jokes that flew just above your intellectual capacity. He will induce in you such irreconcilable  feelings as: pleasant irritation, comfortable terror, gut-wrenching elation, and novel nostalgia. You’ll find yourself in heaven while reading his account of hell and you’ll be sputtering in indignation when he draws his narrative up short at a scant 200 pages. Yes, O’Nolan was the worst kind of savant. The kind that wrote great stories by destroying most of the conventions of storytelling.

He got the ball rolling with his infamous At Swim-Two-Birds, a labyrinthine piece of meta-fiction in which the characters of the novel rise up against their author, make him stand trial, and then murder him. Told in kaleidoscopic fashion with swirling, punchy annotations, O’Nolan’s first novel draws heavily on mythical characters from Irish folklore and actual characters from Ireland’s past. Deemed complex and controversial upon its publication, At Swim-Two-Birds opened the door for O’Nolan’s more focused and subtle (but still searing and revolutionary) The Third Policeman. While less heterodox in its structure, Policeman is considerably more disturbing in its perversion of logic, morality, and natural law. In it, O’Nolan cryptically paints a portrait of a hellish afterlife where an anonymous narrator must endlessly roam without clear purpose or aim. Despite its lack of fire and brimstone, the narrator is tormented on a much more fundamental and insidious level: the intellectual or, put differently, the philosophical. After the challenge of selling At Swim-Two-Birds to the reading public, O’Nolan’s publisher declined to publish The Third Policeman, due to its content and method of presentation. O’Nolan took the criticism to heart and reread his manuscript in great detail. After completing it, he was so troubled that he hid it away and lied to his friends about its whereabouts. It was never published until after his death in 1966.

But the book is only troubling in the sense that it was one of the first major works to break with the realist narrative tradition that was still generally in style around the time of its composition. Indeed, many critics have hailed The Third Policeman as one of the very first major works of post-modernism. Lest the term scare you, let me assure you that we aren’t talking about the post-modernism of, say, Joyce here (although O’Nolan’s detractors tend to belittle him as a watered-down version of Joyce). Rather than tortuous stream-of-consciousness narration, Policeman is instead predicated on comparatively straightforward observations of a landscape ungoverned by reason; rather than self-indulgent literary and linguistic references, Policeman is instead populated with erudite witticisms and obtuse musings that exist by chance more than by design. After all, when nothing is supposed to — strictly speaking — make sense, then you can get away with just about anything.

What this affords O’Nolan, then, is the room he needs to take the narrative out of the realist tradition and into the realm of high parody (or, perhaps, the absurd). His narrator is something of an amoral autodidact who labors intensively on a scholarly manuscript about the life and works of a fictitious physicist-polymath (de Selby) whose bizarre deductions about the powers of water, the origins of sunset, and the utility of mirrors inform many of the narrator’s observations. Although many scholars have previously tried to tackle the intellectual hodgepodge that is de Selby’s scholastic output, not a single one of them can come to terms with its many contradictions. This leads these scholars to openly challenge one another’s interpretations in peer-reviewed journals, spite one another in popular newspapers, and — eventually — to challenge one another to duels and public debates. The narrator of The Third Policeman, then, comes to us with the intent of synthesizing the work of the impossibly un-synthesized viewpoints of the eminently un-synthesize-able de Selby. The task is as absurd as the narrator’s subsequent predicaments. No one will read such a book, no publisher will pay to have it printed. Our narrator casts about for a get-rich-quick scheme that will endow him with the resources he’ll require to self-publish the book.

Enter the motive for a desperate action. Enter, as well, the narrator’s seedy acquaintance who will push him toward said desperate action. Enter, finally, an elderly, helpless, and hapless neighbor who also happens to be rich. One afternoon, the narrator and his seedy acquaintance murder the old guy, bury his treasure in an abandoned house until the buzz about the murder dies down, and wait out a number of weeks before returning to the house to claim their prize. When they do, the narrator goes in first, bends down, and — presumably — is in turn murdered by his own accomplice. The color scheme changes, the temperature cools, the sun sets, and the narrator appears to be in a sort of afterlife.

In somewhat rapid succession, things get out of hand: the narrator is introduced to a previously-absent internal voice whom he presumes is a manifestation of his soul, he encounters the ghost of the elderly man he earlier murdered, he wanders a bit across a bleak landscape before arriving at a strange two-dimensional police station, he encounters the first policeman (Pluck) and the second policeman (MacCruiskeen), he realizes that he is now a part of a world where the only thing that anyone can think about is the bicycle, he is found guilty of a theft by virtue of the actual culprit’s absence, and so on. This middle section of the novel generally follows the narrator around as he navigates various minor predicaments in the company of either Pluck or MacCruiskeen. The three characters have hilarious conversations about physical and legal laws, the benefits of bicycling, and the several small inventions that Pluck and MacCruiskeen have concocted in their boredom while staffing the police station. Vague mention is made of the third policeman. Vague answers are given to direct questions. As hard as the narrator will try, he is unable to penetrate the deeply bizarre logic (or illogic) of the policemen’s existence. And with the scattershot musings of de Selby serving as his intellectual lodestone, he’s even more lost.

When we finally encounter the “third policeman” of the book’s title, he turns out to be something of nincompoop demigod, an unsettlingly benign presence who is, nevertheless, pulling all the strings that govern the narrator’s hell. The third policeman directs the narrator back along the rode that leads to the house he abandoned while he was alive. When he arrives, he realizes that many years have passed in his absence and his old seedy accomplice has married and borne children. When the accomplice sees him, he behaves as if he’s seen a ghost and goes into cardiac arrest. The two of them walk back down the road to the police station, where they engage in the same observations and conversations with Pluck and MacCruiskeen as the narrator did some 100 pages prior. You realize suddenly that this is hell: a slow, meaningless repetitiveness of the absurd. You cannot run and you cannot make sense of it.

I loved this novel and I loved At Swim-Two-Birds as well. I believe that O’Nolan should stand alongside Joyce and Yeats as the great luminaries in modern Irish literature. I’d highly recommend The Third Policeman to anyone who loves a quick and inventive read that relies heavily on empirically-minded treatments of bizarre occurrences like that which you’d find in Borges or, at times, Nabokov.

Rating: 10 / 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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Bartleby & Co.

An awe-inspiring work of casual erudition, this fantastic exploration of “the literature of No” (that is, of authors who refuse to write) is well-written, entertaining, insightful, and requisite. I recommend it highly for anyone who is fundamentally interested in world literature.

Enrique Vila-Matas / Spain / 2000 / 178 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Donne

Bartleby & Co. is one of the truly rare instances of what I might refer to as an “encyclopedic novel.” There are not many of these novels in existence (at least, not in my experience) and many of the ones that do exist are somewhat problematic. Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño is, for example, an encyclopedic novel with a great premise: a fictional catalogue of various poets and novelists who espoused truly horrific political leanings. In execution, however, the book fails to ring with Bolaño’s characteristic dread and cleverness and, by the end, it drags considerably. The Periodic Table by Primo Levi is an excellent book, but only loosely falls into the “encyclopedic” category: ostensibly a catalogue of chemical elements, the novel’s content is really much more literary and far-ranging than one would initially expect (the downside being the bait-and-switch, not the fact that the book is actually incredible). The same might be said for Invisible Cities by Calvino (a catalogue of fictional metropolises) or The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (a catalogue of short philosophical musings). These latter books become untethered from the concrete world almost at their outset and their vague, circular logics make for (overly) impressionistic and (occasionally) unrewarding reading.

But Bartleby & Co. hits the nail on the head in magnificent fashion. The novel is a catalogue of authors of the “literature of No” meaning, more specifically, authors that fall into one of the following categories: (1) authors who wrote great books at one point, but then decided to stop writing altogether, (2) potential authors who could have written great books, but chose never to do so, (3) authors who began books magnificently, but never finished them, (4) authors who were famously reclusive and refused to let their personal presence add anything to their literary efforts, (5) etc. The thesis advanced throughout the encyclopedia is that, while critics and bibliophiles expend copious time and effort studying the productive output of authors, very little time is spent dwelling on the process of writing and the failure to write. Vila-Matas argues that the process and the lack of product are, in themselves, artistic statements worth examining in detail.

I can conceive of no finer purveyor of world literature than Enrique Vila-Matas. In the course of working his way through Bartleby, he manages to not only name-drop, but also spin a few yarns about: Laurence Sterne, J. D. Salinger, Fernando Pessoa, Thomas Pynchon, B. Traven, Balzac, Felisberto Hernández, Herman Melville, Robert Walser, Wiltold Gombrowicz, Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Knut Hamsun, Henry Roth, Dylan Thomas, Goethe, Stendhal, Franz Kafka, André Gide, Juan Rulfo, and Guy de Maupassant (and these are only the highlights). Despite its scant 178 pages, then, Bartleby shakes out an embarrassment of riches: there are enough works and authors mentioned in these pages to structure years of one’s reading efforts. Even beyond this, though, is the awe one experiences at discovering how well-acquainted Vila-Matas is with the biographical background of each of these authors. His knowledge is not only broad, but deep. Additionally, he dispenses with his knowledge in pleasant, offhanded fashion — more like Clive James than Harold Bloom. His erudition is casual and friendly.

And yet the book still somehow manages to fall under a truly literary — that is, fictional — heading. Much of the work is factual in nature, but Vila-Matas crams in several anecdotes that must be short fictional stories and the book itself is written in lovely, lyrical prose. The narrator is a fictional manifestation and one has the sense that several authors’ biographical information has been elaborated in the telling (like, for example, Vila-Matas relates thought processes and internal monologues that would elude even the most invasive of biographers). Even more, the novel has no text to speak of! Rather, it is drafted in a long string of footnotes that are attached to a nonexistent text, making Bartleby a contribution to the literature of No in its own right. Presumably, the narrator hints, the real text of Bartleby exists somewhere, but has been suppressed.

What confronts the reader, then, is a strangely moving argument for literature as artistic process instead of literature as artistic output. Whether you are amenable to the argument is almost beside the point because, I think, everyone can grant the underlying assumption: authors really do refuse to write for principled, interesting, and unique reasons. While perhaps not as enthralling as reading another of Salinger’s novels, an exploration into the reasons why Salinger refuses to write might cast his extant work in a new light. Trying to figure out why Felisberto Hernández always pulled up short in his stories turns our attention to the role of negative space in literature. Thinking about a number of authorial “could have beens” forces us to confront the idea of counterfactual novels that never were. In exploring the literature of No, we gain (or, perhaps, regain) a love of the literature that actually exists in finished form. Bartleby & Co. functions on two levels: the first as a superbly-written work, and the second as a meta-reminder of all the other great works we have and have yet to tackle.

Rating: 9 / 10

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The Interrogation

Something of a mad scientist mash-up of Kafka, Camus, and Fuentes, The Interrogation will certainly leave you reeling. At times great and at others too absurd, the novel is nonetheless a nice selection for those looking to round out their French literary chops.

J. M. G. Le Clézio / French / 1965 / 223 pages
Translated from the French by Daphne Woodward

If the word “interrogation” inherently smacks of Kafka, then the association is well-placed with Le Clézio’s first novel. But it’s not a perfect fit. We get some sense of an individual’s fight against an institutionalized, insidious bureaucracy, sure, but not really until the last 30 pages or so. If you flip through the first few pages of The Interrogation and find yourself thinking that the lean characters are rife with existential crises like the ones that pop up in Camus or, perhaps, Kundera, then I think you’re on to something. But, again, the fit isn’t perfect. By the novel’s end, Le Clézio’s rendering of the protagonist is a good deal more humane (and slightly more disjointed) than the treatments wrought by either of those authors. And, finally, if The Interrogation‘s smoke screen narrative style and delusional monologues strike you as resembling the stuff of Fuentes (at their best) or Donoso or Gombrowicz (at their worst), then you’re not far off the mark. The musings of Le Clézio’s protagonist range from thought-provoking decouplings from the material world to bewildering explorations of metaphysical hellscapes where nothing comes at you from the anticipated angle.

So although the antecedents are there, The Interrogation is a thing of its own. This is sometimes sufficient and occasionally frustrating. At any rate, it’s a bit of a ride.

The novel opens with Adam Pollo, a young man living by himself in an abandoned beachside vacation home who cannot remember whether he was (a) just recently relieved of military service or (b) just recently escaped from an asylum (it doesn’t take much progression in the narrative before our educated guesswork settles on the latter scenario). He writes letters to a female acquaintance of his who was either (a) his former lover or (b) his former object of sexual assault (the jury is still out on this one, to my way of thinking, but the relationship is at least dysfunctional in the extreme). Adam is unemployed, marginalized, alone, and contents himself by following dogs around, throwing cue balls at rats, filling notebooks with wildly imaginative writings, drinking, smoking, and stealing chocolate bars. The Interrogation camps out in this environment for quite a while and, I must admit, it makes for pleasant reading. One feels as if one might be on holiday right along with Adam.

But things get complicated when, for want of resources, he’s forced to make foraging incursions into the village down the hill. There, the narrative becomes increasingly hallucinatory and disjointed and Adam seems to be fundamentally incapable of successfully navigating basic interpersonal exchanges. For a span of a dozen pages or so, Adam and his thoughts practically disappear altogether. When they come back into focus, Le Clézio throws them to the reader in the form of scattered and fragmentary pages from Adam’s notebooks. One has little upon which to hang one’s hat at this point in the novel.

It is here that Adam wanders out into a public square and mumbles through an insane oratorical presentation in front of an ever-growing crowd of on-lookers. Eventually he becomes so overwhelmed that he flees the square (with police in pursuit) and locks himself away in a school classroom. The next several pages are comprised of newspaper clippings dedicated to describing Adam’s rather public apprehension as well as the near-simultaneous murder of a couple of German tourists. One isn’t left with the impression that Adam had anything to do with the crime, but the juxtaposition is sinister.

We check back in with Adam after he’s been committed to an asylum and is being interviewed (here “interrogated” is much too strong a verb) by a group of psychology graduate students. In the course of the interview, we learn about Adam’s educational background and the ease with which he’s able to dispel the students’ supposedly insightful questions. They make passing reference to some act (or acts) that Adam committed (but cannot remember) that might have been the source of his diagnosis as a lunatic. The nature of these acts are never explicitly spelled out for the reader, but hints are dropped throughout the narrative. Le Clézio, who at times has been an intrusive narrator, breaks off the novel by half-heartedly scolding the reader for wanting all the loose ends tied up and promising more fiction about Adam or, perhaps, about people who are similar to Adam. It is a weird, unexpected, and jarring conclusion.

In the final analysis, I believe The Interrogation needs more ballast. It is a slim offering at just over 200 pages and there is little plot, only trace character development, scant dialogue, and too much reliance on elemental narration and thematic presentation. Seeking a similarly French comparison, I found his book to resemble Claude Simon’s The Flanders Road in terms of its frustration-to-brilliance ratio. That being said, I can also see why people got excited about this novel (it was Le Clézio’s first and launched him on a trajectory that would culminate in 2008 with the bestowal of a Nobel Prize). It is a novel with many nice ideas and draws extensively from various techniques, many of which are quite compelling. On a page-to-page basis, the writing is often very good and descriptively beautiful. And at several points, I found Adam’s thoughts, speeches, and arguments rather hilarious. I would recommend this book with a bit of reservation to people who were serious about reading deeply into more modern European literature.

Rating: 5 / 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.

Yawn.

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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A High Wind In Jamaica

This relentless-but-lighthearted chronicle of the various ills (both other-imposed and self-inflicted) that befall a group of children after they’ve been taken hostage on a pirate ship is a bizarrely insightful look into the inner moral workings of childhood innocence. Hughes’ thesis is, simply put, that children aren’t all that innocent.

Richard Hughes / British / 1929 / 279 pages

I seem to have recently stumbled into a raft of novels where children aren’t depicted in the most flattering of lights. Murakami led the charge with his character May Kasahara in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Here is a young teenage woman who, rather than attending high school, is content to smoke, spy, and speculate with the adult protagonist about a range of lurid hypotheticals. Then there was the ragtag bunch of aspiring tennis pros in DFW’s Infinite Jest who daily ingested a panoply of illicit substances before playing mock war games where their tennis balls approximated nuclear warheads decimating entire metropolises. Just last week I finished reading McEwan’s Atonement, where the young Briony Tallis famously mistakes a romantic encounter between her older sister and her sister’s lover as sexual assault and testifies against the man in a court of law (the result of which is his years-long incarceration).

Richard Hughes takes the indictment of supposed childhood innocence to an entirely new level, however, in A High Wind in Jamaica. His thesis is fairly simple: in addition to being physically and intellectually underdeveloped compared to adults, children are generally morally adrift as well and, without substantial oversight (or, actually, sometimes despite this oversight), they cannot be trusted to make morally defensible decisions on their own. They hurt one another, they hurt animals; they are systematically incapable of keeping promises and harbor no understanding of the consequences of actions; they forget traumatic experiences in the face of more immediately pleasant ones; they are fickle and their memories are untrustworthy; inconsistency, caprice, and ignorance govern their reality. At the same time that they can be manipulated, they are also eminently adaptable and shift shapes depending on the demands of their surroundings. Group dynamics within collections of children are especially problematic. Given to the whimsy of the mob mentality, they ostracize one another maliciously and without design.

This might all seem a little curmudgeonly, but Hughes was specifically working in this novel to draw into question the old Victorian idea that childhood is a idyllic Garden of Eden where innocence lies unspoiled by the harsh demands of the adult world. Hughes recognizes this potential, but rails against its automatic assumption. He places his group of children in a broad range of less-than-ideal environments of adult supervision. First, they are woefully unattended to by their absentminded parents in an English colony in Jamaica. Second, they basically run unchecked and without supervision around the decks of a pirate ship after they have been taken captive by these criminals of the high seas. Third, they are easily manipulated by a range of lawyers and judges in a court of law where they are asked to bear out false testimony against the pirates. Throughout the course of these events, one child will accidentally fall to his death, another will accidentally murder a gagged-and-bound seaman, and a third will be victimized by the pirate horde for want of collective protection by the other children. It is a dark tale.

But a huge component of the novel’s brilliance is the rather light air with which Hughes is able to treat these subjects. The book is seriously funny at many points and the horrors come off more as illustrative parables rather than visceral accounts intended to shock the reader out of his complacency. We don’t often think of children behaving in these capacities, but Hughes’ narrative arcs are all plausible: given the circumstances, the confusion, and these children’s inherently underdeveloped sense of right and wrong, it makes sense that they would behave in such capacities. Equally entertaining is Hughes’ repeated demonstration that moral adulthood (or at least, moral adulthood as demonstrated in the lives of the children’s parents, captors, and lawyers) is nothing much to aspire to. We’ve always known that the moral compass of many grown people points magnetic south; Hughes is simply comfortable adding to this list the orientations of children as well.

There are a number of highly effective narrative techniques at work in this novel. The atmospheres are consistently pleasant, but only superficially so. It always feels, each page anew, that we’re just a hair’s breadth away from some new calamity despite the lighthearted scene setting. To some extent, this is the point: things can go from good to bad (or from bad to worse) very quickly and it takes an individual of rather pronounced moral acuity to bridge the transition successfully. I am reminded in this respect of another island novel The Ten Thousand Things, that feasts on these weirdly murky and slightly cosmic environments. Hughes also relies occasionally on the kind of haphazard slapstick comedy we see in, for instance, Catch-22 or, perhaps, Under the Net. Hilarious misunderstandings that play out between adults and children often result in some truly ridiculous antics and at least a few of these end jovially rather than horribly. Taken in total, Hughes offers the reader enough to hang her hat on in terms of style, humor, and presentation that she can easily weather the darker storm that underlies the novel’s progression.

Critically speaking, this is one of the most highly regarded novels of the twentieth century, yet it’s one that I believe most people have never heard of. I can understand how at the time of its publication, it was a truly pioneering work and many reviewers have noted that it opened the doors for later (and more popular) works such as Lord of the Flies and Walkabout and The Butterfly Revolution. I’d highly recommend the book for anyone who was once a child; that is to say, everyone should check out this book!

Rating: 9 / 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 Flanders Road

 

I found this French novel to be strangely evocative of a trio of German novelists: Böll, Sebald, and Remarque; that is to say, The Flanders Road reads like a severely hyperbolized mash-up of Billiards at Half-Past NineAusterlitz, and All Quiet on the Western Front. It is not a book for everyone.

Claude Simon / French / 1960 / 193 pages
Translated from the French by Richard Howard

Here is a novel that takes some well-worn tropes and wraps them up in such a unique and challenging presentation that we almost forget we’re really just reading about some rather basic truths: war is hell, people are obsessed with sex, and reality is subjective. Simon renders in staggeringly convincing detail the more mundane and hellish activities of professional soldiering while at the same time splicing in bits of erotic (or maybe outright pornographic?) depictions of physical love which are augmented by hazy recollections of assassinations, suicides, and the relentless Nazi advance toward France during the second world war. Far from a straightforward novel about the horrors of modern warfare, however, The Flanders Road juxtaposes scenes of destruction with accounts of rapturous love, horse racing, and drunken forays into pubs, hotels, and brothels. My reading of the novel hinges a great deal on Simon’s fairly overt cynicism toward these activities: the humans in his novel lead pretty base lives, not much different than those of animals, and their attempts to adorn their memories with sterilized and poetic elaborations ultimately fail to rid them of psychologically taxing truths.

The novel tends to be billed as a shifting-perspective take on the events surrounding the death of an infantry captain during the German occupation of Belgium (and, eventually, France) in the early years of World War II. To an extent, this is an accurate description. Captain de Reixach is shot off his horse by a German sniper in the first handful of pages and the three main characters of the novel — Georges, Blum, and Iglésia — spend a good deal of time rehashing the details of this event. But as The Flanders Road progresses, we’re given far too many details about Georges’ ancestor’s murder / suicide and Iglésia’s past as a horse jockey (and both of their sexual histories) for the story to be simply confined to an examination of de Reixach’s inability to pick the sniper out of the trees. And with the presence of a relentlessly empirically-minded character (Blum) who meticulously interrogates the other two characters when he feels that their memories are straying off track, the reader is left to conclude that Simon is trying to fry much bigger fish than the historical intricacies of WWII. The Flanders Road, then, is predicated to a large extent on characters attempting to disabuse themselves of unpleasant memories — either through altering truths or seeking cheap pleasures. In this pursuit, they, in a word, fail.

Simon pioneers a hazy swirl cloud of a prose technique to give the reader a window into the psychological machinations of his characters. A death of one person calls to mind the death of another, an account of a horse race is spliced into frantic descriptions of routed French soldiers fleeing a mechanized Nazi advance, and images of warfare flit into Georges’ mind while he’s making love to a woman years later. But the chronological / spatial back-and-forth isn’t quite enough. Simon also omits punctuation routinely, passes seamlessly from first- to third-person narration, and relies heavily on lengthy asides (think ellipses inside ellipses inside ellipses … literally) to draw out his incredibly rambling sentences. A Simon sentence is longer than something you’d see in James, but with poorer grammatical syntax; longer than what you get in Fuentes and at the same time more hallucinatory; longer even than the lengthiest ramblings you might encounter in the writings of David Foster Wallace or Thomas Bernhard, but flightier and less grounded. It is, simply put, an incredible struggle to make it all the way through The Flanders Road‘s 193 pages. I’ve read several accounts online of people who abandoned the novel at all stages: page 3, page 180 ( ! ), and page 56.

The novel is divided into three sections, each of which loosely corresponds to one of the three main characters, but there is so much variation in the narrative within each section, that I’m less comfortable with the “story told in three perspectives” description than some other reviewers seem to be. Each section opens with a quote and, considered in synthesis, they offer a somewhat clear-cut synopsis of the novel’s thematic thrust. The first is by da Vinci and is the sort of thing you’d expect at the beginning of a novel about war: “I thought I was learning how to live / I was learning how to die.” But the second quote will throw you for a loop: it comes from Martin Luther and articulates his befuddlement at the way God designed men and women such that they had to have sexual relations in order to procreate. And the third quote tries to wrap these into a common framework: “Sensual pleasure is the embrace of a dead body by two living beings.” The dead body, seemingly, is “time murdered for a time” by which the author means, I suppose, the “time out of mind” provided by the ballistics of sex, but also provided by the ballistics of warfare and other similarly psychologically taxing experiences. If the passage of time troubles me, then I long to murder it in whatever way I can manage; if my recollections contain facts that horrify me, then I long to murder them either through revision or recreation. The fact that Simon’s characters, despite their best efforts, are completely unable to do this reveals something about his outlook on the human condition. It is not positive.

In reading the introductory material for this novel and in poking around a bit on the internet, it seems the most often invoked points of comparison are Faulkner and, to a lesser extent, Proust. My experience with the former is sparse (I’ve only read As I Lay Dying) and the latter is nonexistent, so I have to draw on other comparisons. Simon’s novel is a bit like Böll’s Billiards at Half-Past Nine in its stream-of-consciousness narration that is heavily predicated on overlapping (and interconnected) time periods, though it surpasses Böll in a big way: Simon’s style is much more fugue-like and considerably more disjointed. Substantively, The Flander’s Road is also similar to Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald in the sense that it rigorously interrogates the limits (and, indeed, usefulness) of memory and storytelling. Whereas with Sebald we’re given a gradual revelation of something approaching actual reality, however, Simon’s memory tropes are largely based on the bait-and-switch: instead of “Oh, now I remember more clearly!” or “Oh, now it’s all coming back to me!” we instead get “Well, maybe that thing I just told you was totally false.” This sort of thing can frustrate less patient readers, especially when its couched in such tortuous prose that you’re struggling simply to keep your head above water. Finally, from a thematic standpoint, Simon strays rather closely to All Quiet on the Western Front: although he seems to be more interested in the give-and-take between creation and destruction, between life and death, he’s just as apt as Remarque in rendering the total desolation (both moral and physical) of warfare. The closing line of the novel brilliantly describes a war-stricken landscape in gray colors and tired prose: “the world stopped frozen crumbling collapsing gradually disintegrating in fragments like an abandoned building, unusable, left to the incoherent, casual, impersonal and destructive work of time.”

In the final analysis, then, I’m left to conclude that The Flanders Road is well worth reading; a perfect book for really aggressive readers looking to broaden their horizons, but not for everyone. There are, after all, much easier-to-digest postmodern novels out there (Under the Volcano and The Crying of Lot 49) and more emotionally devastating novels about warfare (The Return of the Soldier and, well, War and Peace). But Simon undertook something unique and challenging with this novel and I give him points for that.

Rating: 5 / 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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