Potter's Book Blog

Reviews of world literature from 1900 to the present.

Category: Worth Reading

Doctor Zhivago

doctor zhivago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5 / 10

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Near to the Wild Heart

near to the wild heart

Buzz abounds for “Hurricane Clarice” and her new four-part series of translations from New Directions publishing house; after reading the first of these — Near to the Wild Heart — I’m not entirely sure that the hype is deserved. There is great magic and mystery to this short novel, but it’s also a wildly scattershot affair.

Clarice Lispector / Brazil / 1943 / 194 pages
Translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entreken

I was searching through lists of Latin American authors the other day when I came across Clarice Lispector, an Eastern European who immigrated to Brazil as a child and wrote in the Portuguese tongue. I had never heard the name before (and my Latin American friends hadn’t, either), so I was surprised to find that New Directions had very recently issued a four-part series of translations of her work. New Directions is my workhorse publisher for great Latin American prose translations and they’ve never let me down in the past: indeed, their selection of texts and translators are both consistently excellent. The four covers of Lispector’s novels boast vague endorsements from the likes of Jonathan Franzen (“A truly remarkable writer”) and Orhan Pamuk (“One of the twentieth century’s most mysterious writers”). Combine all this with the emergence of a recent high profile biography (Why This World?), which received a glowing review in The New York Times and I began to feel like I was missing the boat on something important. I read a bit about each of the four novels before settling on her first — Near to the Wild Heart — which allegedly revolutionized Brazilian literature and drummed up something of a cult following among the Brazilian intelligentsia.

Despite emerging from sources other than my traditional channels of recommendation, I attacked this lean, sparse novel with excited momentum. The first several pages held up well to expectation; then the text began to flounder. Later on, things got back on track, then slid off the rails. I began to feel as if I’d been bamboozled. A few truly brilliant passages (painfully short) cropped up in the back half of the novel before it sputtered to a confused and insubstantial end. I sighed in relief upon finishing the book, overall disappointed but also a bit intrigued by what I had read. I think there are some interesting dynamics at play here — both inherent in and external to the novel — that might shed some light on why New Directions picked up Lispector. I’ll elaborate on these before making the case that, despite some nice touches, Near to the Wild Heart is a novel best put aside until one has spent more time with other  works in the Latin American canon.

I think that many people have been taken with the idea of Clarice Lispector and the idea of a short, dense, impressionistic novel like Near to the Wild Heart. Indeed, most of the packaging and promotion of the books centers on Lispector as an unique author and personality: critics talk about the woman’s great beauty, odd voice, and interesting backstory. The four editions are covered with various fragments of a picture of Lispector’s face and even the introductory material that prefaces Near to the Wild Heart focuses more on the author and the novel’s composition than on its content. People are interested in whether or not she was influenced by James Joyce; people are curious about the method she used to write the novel and its lack of subsequent editing. There is a long discussion about how Wild Heart went on to win some of Brazil’s most prestigious literary prizes; critics argued that she was the best female voice in the Portuguese language, notable for her strange (non-native) use of the language. If you look up online reviews of the novel, they tend to parrot this biographical (circumstantial, incidental) information without really engaging the content of Wild Heart. The vast majority of reviews end positively because the writing is on the wall: Lispector is the next big thing coming out of Latin America and all of these reviewers want to be at the forefront of the discovery.

I don’t want to be too pessimistic here — and certainly I’ve often indulged in the “I found an obscure novel before you” mindset on this blog — but there is something kind of suspicious about all of this. It seems like New Directions might be aiming to replicate the “Bolaño Effect” from a few years ago: grab an author with whom very few people in the Spanish-speaking world are familiar, translate his work into English, find a receptive audience in the United States, and wait for the works to eventually catch on back home in Latin America. This dynamic played out successfully with Bolaño, but led to a backlash. While a couple of his novels are sheer genius, many of his lesser works are pretty awful and there was never any need to translate Bolaño’s entire output into English (thereby crowding out limited resources that might have been productively expended in translating other great authors). Part of what made the Bolaño story arch so compelling were the specifics of his biography and political history. People were drawn to the allure of the author as a figure and then, thereafter, the high quality of his major novels were an easy sale. Lispector has the requisite biographical chops, but not, I fear, the substance to back it up. At least, not with this novel.

The plot charts out in highly impressionistic fashion the coming-of-age of Joana, a strangely apathetic and emotionally untethered woman who loses her sole remaining parent at a young age and must go to live with her distant aunt. The novel covers some of her adolescence, her marriage to a high-achieving and empirically-minded man named Octávio, and the eventual dissolution of that marriage. The book ends with Joana on a boat, mentally oscillating between anxiousness, confusion, and epiphany.

Right off the bat, you get the sense that it’s going to be nearly impossible to figure out the trajectory of Joana’s evolution as a character. When I think of similar coming-of-age stories such as The Bell Jar, for example, or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or even The Virgin Suicides, I feel like Plath, Spark, and Eugenides were all working creatively around tightly-constructed themes. That is to say, I feel like each of these authors put a good deal more time into actually thinking about what it was they wanted to say than Lispector did with Wild Heart. You know early on in The Bell Jar that you’re reading a heart-rending treatise on the problems of patriarchy in the mental health profession; you can also tell that Miss Jean Brodie is going to instruct her pupils in a way that challenges their understanding of the norms of femininity and it’s also pretty obvious that Eugenides is setting out to pillory the baby-boom suburbanism of his youth. All of these other coming-of-age stories have a thesis, a thematic thrust that they work to flesh out on each page of the manuscript. Lispector, by contrast, just throws us around in the haze and Joana’s epiphanies are bizarre and confusing; her dynamism as a character, then, is difficult to get a handle on.

I think a quick objection to the above characterization is to defend the novel as a work of stream-of-consciousness, a highly impressionistic piece that’s similar to styles invoked by Woolf or Joyce. If I didn’t “get” the story then it’s because I simply wasn’t willing enough to wander into the murky recesses of Joana’s mind and extract the encoded message. If I didn’t like the novel, then it was my fault, not hers.

This argument fails, however, because I know that Lispector was capable of better — she showed me as much in the course of Wild Heart. Indeed, when she lets us consider Joana outside of her own head, then the book rings with a truly haunting and mysterious beauty. Early in the novel, for instance, Lispector sketches out an effective interaction between a very young Joana and her father. Similar discussions of Joana and her aunt, Joana and her teacher, and Joana and Octávio are all equally poignant. I would actually venture the hypothesis that Lispector was something of a low-lying master of depicting the nuances in interpersonal relationships. She prompted me to think about marriage and parent-child interactions and I very much enjoyed where those thought experiments led me.

By contrast, all of the internal workings of Joana’s brain are just too much noise to sift through. She passes through the full spectrum of human emotions in almost every section of the novel and, upon its conclusion, you get the sense that literally anything could make her cry, anything could make her laugh, anything could anger her, whatever. I could see someone arguing “that’s the point, man!”, but I’m not buying it. Rather than driving home Joana’s apathy, the narration just undermines her plausibility as a protagonist. I’d be much more interested in reading about the (truly interesting) life of Clarice Lispector than the (truly confusing) lives of her characters. My verdict on Near to the Wild Heart is to dodge the hype and go pick up another lesser known Latin American author like Carpentier or Hernández instead.

Rating: 4 / 10

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Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

Considerably longer, denser, and more self-indulgent than his other notable works, Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor is a seriously challenging affair for the reader; all the Nabokovian thrills are there, but the typically brilliant prose occasionally wanders into the realm of the needlessly obtuse.

Vladimir Nabokov / Russo-American / 1969 / 620 pages

I tend to give Nabokov high marks because he messes with me. In Lolita, I found that I rather enjoyed the novel despite its ostensibly inappropriate subject matter; subsequently, I felt bad about myself for forgetting what the book was actually about. But, props for the diversionary tactics. In Pale Fire, I was nearly driven mad by its open-ended conclusion which allows for any number of divergent interpretations. Why are so many very smart people finishing this novel on different pages, so to speak? How do you write a book that prompts critics to argue about whether or not some of the characters were real in the first place!? Even Nabokov’s simpler efforts, like the beautiful and often overlooked Pnin, employ clever prose stylings to tackle characters, their thoughts, and their actions in indirect or sideways capacities. You’ve got to stay on top of every line and allow for pauses between sentences; otherwise, you’ll never have the opportunity for the hundreds of ” … oh, okay, I get it” revelations that are crucial for successfully deciphering (and appreciating) Nabokov’s insanely unparalleled prose.

But the guy might have overdone it with Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, which is a huge tome (by Nabokovian standards) clocking in at over 600 pages with an accompanying series of end notes that may or may not be worth your time to flip through (I have yet to make up my mind on this point). Laced with tracts of Russian and French phrases and substantial discourses tending toward the biological, entomological, chronological, and psychological (that is to say, not literary), Ada is something of an frustratingly labyrinthine exercise with an ultimate thesis along the lines of I am a bigger polymath than you. Considering the fact that this is something I would have granted Nabokov long ago, I cannot say that it required such long-winded substantiation.

All that being said, the novel’s novelties are many and bear mentioning.

The book is more-or-less about a romantic relationship between Van Veen and Ada Veen who, through a quirk of cross-marriage infidelity, are actually brother and sister (a piece of information they discover after consummating their love, i.e. after it is “too late”) rather than first cousins (they were raised by different sets of parents which would have made them, ahem, “kissing cousins” rather than the considerably more incestuous “coital siblings”). So the name of the game is incest and the preponderance of Ada‘s passages might be best characterized as (juvenilely, unfortunately, uncomfortably) erotic in tone. You have to give Nabokov credit (or, perhaps, not give him credit) for returning to such racy material after all the allegations of perversion that Lolita drummed up. Do I think that Nabokov was a pervert? Probably not. Taken together, do Lolita and Ada add up to a significant dalliance with the literature of perversion? Um, yeah.

The novel is divided into five segments, with the first comprising more than half of the novel. Something of an ode to Tolstoy’s novels of the family (like Anna Karenina), the first section is set in an idyllic rural mansion during Van and Ada’s childhood. For all of the weird romantic tension, the landscape and its inhabitants are happy, content, and in many ways are living out the prime years of their lives. The children read great works of literature in the mansion’s expansive library, forage the woods for excellent specimens of butterflies and insect larvae, eat rich meals late at night, and carry on extensive conversations with a rotating cast of distant relatives who visit during holidays. Previous readers of Nabokov will recognize his uncanny ability to drum up such comfortable, idyllic scenery. It really is an event of high nostalgia. The subsequent sections of the novel chart the trials and tribulations of their adulthood and eventually relate the happenings of their old age, where they collaborate on something of a mutual autobiography that is supposed to be the very pages of Ada, or Ardor that rest in the reader’s hands.

But nothing in the Nabokovian universe is simple. Van’s formal education is in psychology and, as he grows older, he begins to specialize in humans’ ability to think back on the past and recall events from their childhood (which is, obviously, the linchpin underlying the entire narrative arch of Ada). The children and all of their relatives — indeed, everyone they know — live on a world called “Antiterra” (or sometimes referred to as “Demonia”) that resembles in many geopolitical senses our “Earth” yet differs in some important respects (like, for example, substantial swathes of North America are inhabited extensively by and, indeed, managed by Russian and Irish immigrants). The names of cities and universities are different than those on “Earth” and the historical development of Antiterra departs dramatically from that of the planet we’ve all grown up on. Furthermore, Van’s psychological patients fall prey to collective, mass illusions of a sister plant — Terra — that has its own history, inhabitants, and geography. Terra, as such, never makes an actual appearance in the novel, but its presence is felt. Many people conjecture that it might be the location of the afterlife once one’s life on Antiterra has expired. Others doubt its existence. Movies are made, books are written, and scholastic energies are devoted to the study of Terra and Van Veen, himself, spends a considerable portion of his career thinking about the mysterious planet.

There are other sleights of hand as well. The book opens with a brief statement that every character in the book is now dead except for Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Oranger. Despite seeming to be of some consequence, this statement ends up being almost entirely meaningless as neither of these characters appear until the last dozen pages of the novel. When they do, it is not at all clear why our attention should have been drawn to them in the first place (my hypothesis is that Nabokov just threw us a red herring). It takes a while before the reader realizes that the setting of the novel is not actually located on “Earth” and the significance of this is also not immediately obvious. Vague and passing mention is made of flying carpets (weird). In an attempt at suicide, Van pulls the trigger of a gun he has pointed at his head only to have it turn into a banana (the most plausible explanation from my perspective is that he’s now found himself in some sort of afterlife with only the faintest of transitions). Later on, he insults a person in a hotel lobby who shoots him in the back. Nabokov writes that Van is now in the “next phase of his existence” but it exactly mirrors his previous state (is he dead again? how many parallel universes are we running through, here?)

If this all sounds needlessly bizarre, then you’ve taken the correct interpretation. Nabokov has always written weird stuff, but I’ve generally found that the weirdness services a broader aim in a pleasantly productive way. Ada, by contrast, comes off as being a bit too self-indulgent: there are too many in-jokes, too many obscure references, and too many hopelessly opaque passages. I have this picture in my mind of Nabokov laughing over a typewriter and, perhaps, calling his wife / editor / assistant Vera into the room to partake in his mirth. I wish I could join in the hilarity, but I don’t know enough about butterflies, biological taxonomy, Russian history, and French grammar. And neither, I would guess, does anyone else.

Rating: 5 / 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 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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Naïve. Super

This is a novel for people who love lists and are enchanted by the literary possibilities therein; it also seems like Naïve. Super might appeal to people who thought the movie Garden State had something intelligent to say about the world.

Erlund Loe / Norwegian / 1996 / 197 pages
Translated from the Norwegian by Tor Ketil Solberg

The narrator of Loe’s Naïve. Super is a college-educated man-child whose ennui (both philosophical and practical) forces him into a prolonged bought of playing with kids’ toys and manic list-making. When he tells you his story, he writes in Hemingway half-articulations of 4- and 5-word sentences and 1- and 2-sentence paragraphs. When he feels that this technique is not quite cryptic enough, he streamlines even further by simply inserting the lists themselves into the text of his narrative. The world comes at him as items grouped loosely under thematic headings, but with no real substantiating connections. He worries about the big picture; he grows disheartened when he can’t explain how his life experiences all hang together in the same meaningful constellation.

Hey, man, welcome to the club. Get off the couch.

Loe’s novel begins when the narrator has a minor nervous fit while playing croquet with his older brother. He’s in the middle of working on his graduate degree, he has no girlfriend or abode of his own, and he cannot figure out where to go from here. His brother leaves town for several weeks and asks him to watch the apartment while he’s gone. The narrator drops out of school, buys some toys and a car, and tries to come to terms with his joblessness and lack of motivation. He creates lengthy lists that distill small truths and examine the balance of good things and bad things in his life. He befriends a neat kid next door and meets a nice girl with whom he goes on long pleasant walks through the Norwegian forests. He listens to Alanis Morissette and reads books about the cosmos that push the boundaries of his critical thinking. In the words of Radiohead, he gradually becomes fitter, happier, and more productive.

In terms of the book’s substance, then, it seems like if we adapted it for the film and set it to the music of the Postal Service, we’d have a quirky indy coming-of-age comedy where an emotionally beleaguered 20-something has to deal with over-dramatized emotional baggage. He renews his lease on life when he meets Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State and college-aged kids around the world swoon over the unlikely romance that develops. Much like that (somewhat pedantic) movie, they are supposed to see something of themselves in the narrator; his popcorn-smelling redemption is their own.

(Slightly more seriously: you do have to wonder how much blood is still pumping in these angst-filled premises, where young adults who had perfectly tolerable home lives growing up and who were gifted fabulous college educations are temporary incapacitated by just a touch of lassitude mixed with a watered-down dose of depression. The idea that it just takes a pretty girl, a good song, and a change of scenery to pull one out of such problems has always seemed a bit disingenuous to me. When we fluff up these fake problems, we undercut the seriousness of actual ones; when we rely on readymade remedies, I think we fall prey to the placebo effect.)

So I wasn’t amenable to the book’s themes. That being said, I did very much enjoy it on other levels. The Hemingway prose approach has been beaten to death, but the inclusion of lists was actually quite excellent and unique. Boiling prose down to its barest essentials (something that Hemingway was alleged to have been doing) forces the reader to fill in the gaps. Furthermore, Loe also includes scanned copies of (ostensibly) primary texts such as fax sheets, emails, library records, work orders, and road signs. In one sense, this gives the novel a rougher aura, as if we are researchers stumbling across primary source documents. In another sense, we are left to ponder the implications for narration — as an object or act — of including such unlikely narrative tools.

Loe doesn’t take us too far down this metafictive road, however, and other authors take us much further. And the lion’s share of the exemplary execution is overshadowed by the pedantic nature of the ideas themselves. To this end, the novel really is something of a tug-of-war between the two adjectives ensconced in the title; I would argue, unfortunately, that naïve wins out over super.

Rating: 5 / 10

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Four Japanese Novels


    Four Japanese Novels


Yukio Mishima / The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea / 1963

Shusaku Endo / The Sea and Poison / 1958
Kobo Abé / The Woman in the Dunes / 1962
Haruki Murakami / The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle / 1994

A handful of months back, I decided that it was time to get serious about Japanese literature. I had very little experience with novels from Japan and, as someone who has trumpeted the importance of spreading one’s reading list geographically, I feared that I was bordering on hypocrisy by virtually ignoring the Asian world. I spent the second half of August and the first part of September reading novels from four major Japanese post-WWII authors and I present them here together for your consideration. I don’t intend to belittle the works by lumping them into one post; rather, I wanted the post to reflect the truly singular nature of this reading mini-project. All of the books were at least decent and some of them were really quite wonderful.

Mishima

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is a sparse, lean book that explores post-WWII life in a city on the Japanese coast. A woman who manages a clothing store that imports its inventory from European clothiers inadvertently falls in love with a sailor who ends up renouncing the navy in favor of her company. Her young son, who at first admired the sailor’s unrestrained freedom and masculinity, becomes disgusted when the sailor declares his love for the boy’s mother and moves into the family’s home. The boy is a member of a gang of wayward youth who are philosophically opposed to the adult world, kill small animals by way of killing time, and rampage unchecked up and down the Japanese coastline. Having ingratiated himself to the leader of the gang by sharing humiliating stories about the sailor, the boy eventually offers the sailor up to the gang’s aggression as a sacrificial object. The book quickly spins along toward a horrible ending.

Despite the novel’s inherent terseness, Mishima is still able to conjure beautifully atmospheric imagery. The warmth of the sun, the stunning appearance of the boy’s mother, the rollicking of the sea — all of these come alive under the author’s deft pen. Many of the subtler cultural juxtapositions are also expertly rendered, especially the sailor’s internal debate about whether to turn his back on the sea for the sake of love or to stay true to his life’s calling. When Mishima pivots away from the sailor and the mother, however, the narrative tends to suffer. The depiction of the gang of boys falls well short of plausibility and their crack philosophies, violent behavior, and professional-spy-like ability to avoid detection by their parents or law enforcement officers borders on the bizarre. Especially when stacked up against the other novels, Sailor suffers for want of real human emotion. Endo, for example, is able to operate in a similarly sparse framework, but more adeptly draws out his characters’ dynamism and internal tensions. Murakami’s violence is more explosive and far more arresting and Abé wields a pretty huge psychological stick with which he beats his protagonist (and reader) again and again.

Endo

I first read The Sea and Poison for an undergraduate philosophy class. I distinctly remember the day the professor looked at all of the students — who must have been exhibiting signs of scholastic negligence — and beseeched us to pay close attention to Endo. “I have students from many years ago who still tell me that they are haunted by this novel.” Being the sort of person I was at the age of 20, I read the book quickly and enjoyed it more or less. Having picked it up for a second read five years later, my impression is significantly more positive: Endo has created a masterpiece with this novel.

The novel tracks a group of Japanese doctors toward the end of WWII who have been tasked by a military official to conduct medical experiments on American prisoners of war. The main character — Suguro — is a young resident who, for the sake of his career, must shout down his moral objections and assist in the procedures. Endo employs some subtle tricks with chronology and we first encounter Suguro many years after the war when he has sequestered himself in a small, rural community. He appears broken, bereaved and, come to find out, party to a lawsuit filed by the Japanese government against the team of doctors who conducted the experiments. The remainder of the novel cuts back to the past, where the hospital is plagued with tuberculosis patients, midnight bombing campaigns, and food shortages. Endo renders in precise detail the tension underscoring several salient dichotomies: man versus woman; doctor versus patient; countryman versus foreigner.

One of the great facets of the novel (indeed, with all of these novels) is the imagery. Whereas with Mishima the adjectives are beautiful and whereas with Abé they are claustrophobic, with Endo we are peppered with truly horrifying scenes of TB patients fighting over scraps of bread, surgical procedures conducted with ether as the major anesthetic, the auditory experience of cutting through a patient’s ribcage, and so on. The effect is bleak and, by the end of the narrative, there will be no redemption. Bland color schemes, dusty roads, sterile operating rooms, and starched sheets define the landscape both physically and metaphysically. You will grimace and cringe, but not mainly (or, at least, not solely) due to the terribleness of what transpires; rather, more troubling than all of this is to witness firsthand the total desiccation of a man’s well of morality. Endo saps Suguro of everything that he has and casts him brutally aside in what might be one of my favorite closing lines to a novel: “Suguro could go no further. He could go no further.” One must read the novel to fully recognize the gravity of the repetition.

Abé

If Endo gives us the story of a good man gone wrong, then Abé gives us the story of simple man who, through trials and tribulations, becomes a more complicated version of his previous self. The protagonist in question is an entomologist who takes a long weekend at the beach with the intent of collecting some rare species of sand beetles. He unexpectedly runs across a small village and gets distracted by the beautiful landscapes and amiable townsfolk. As night falls, the villagers graciously offer to lodge him for the night in a ramshackle hut at the bottom of a great sand dune. They tell him not to worry; they’ll come back to help him out of the dune in the morning and send him on his way.

That’s not what ends up happening. Instead, the man is partnered with a woman and driven into a type of indentured servitude where he must spend his waking hours shoveling away at the sand dune to prevent it from blowing into the rest of the village. He cannot believe his misfortune and he cannot understand the duplicity of the townsfolk. He is angry with the woman with whom he must labor; then he falls in love with her; then he resents her; then spends weeks trying to figure out how to escape; then, finally, falls into a comfortable pattern of work and grows accustomed to his misfortune.

There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles here and the plot trajectory is predictable. Abé succeeds, however, in tracing out these minute and subtle shifts in the man’s psychological disposition. It doesn’t help that this man is really the everyman and it isn’t long before the reader realizes that the predictability of these shifts constitutes, in itself, the point: this man’s anger would be our anger, his frustrations would be our frustrations and, eventually, his resignation would be our resignation. It is not a terribly comforting thought.

Murakami

Wind-Up Bird is far and away the longest of the novels reviewed here (at 600+ pages, it’s longer than the three previous novels put together) and also the most substantively expansive. Murakami is a very important contemporary writer in Japan and a few of his earlier works — most notably Norwegian Wood and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World — have also garnered widespread recognition in  English-speaking countries as well. He is famous for exploring the cultural crisis that accompanied the country’s demilitarization, democratization, and modernization in the immediate aftermath of WWII, and many critics have argued that Murakami attempted to roll all of Japan into Wind-Up Bird. I’m not particularly well-situated to evaluate this claim, but I can tell you the following: Murakami’s masterwork is sufficiently diffuse, variegated, and spastic that it may well include bits and pieces of everything Japanese. I’m not sure, however, that adding up all the components will actually get you anything that resembles a cohesive whole.

The book is written in three parts and was originally published in three volumes. The first two volumes explore a number of minor calamities that befall Toru Okada: he loses his job and his cat, his wife leaves him for another man, he gets stuck in the bottom of a well, and his ex-brother-in-law (whom he hates) is elected to national political office by a rather wide margin. But that’s not all. Okada also receives strange and lurid phone calls from an unidentified woman; two soothsayers pop up at random and act as if they were intimately acquainted with the finer details of Okada’s future; and a rather forward young girl recruits him to help her conduct research on balding men in a nearby shopping mall. Throughout it all, Okada narrates in a detached, deadpan first-person narrative that — at least for the first 300 pages — is both compelling and entertaining. Toward the end of the second volume, however, the wheels start to come off. Not only is Okada’s character trumped by some of the more interesting ones, but Murakami has thrown together so many disjointed tidbits that the reader is left reeling.

I really like this type of novel, at least in theory. At first, everyone seems to know much more than Okada about what’s going on. This is a situation rather similar to The Magus, where an unsuspecting British teacher is led to a Greek island and made the subject of a bizarre and elaborate psychological experiment. There, someone is behind the curtain pulling the strings and all the actors conspire against the unwitting subject. But with Wind-Up Bird, there’s no ringmaster. In some sense, Murakami could be said to lay out his plots like Bolaño insofar as they progress in seemingly random ways that are nonetheless connected by less tangible overarching principles. Bolaño’s work is short on masterminds, but chuck full of undirected cosmic powers. At the end of the day, though, I’m not so keen on even granting Murakami this much. Some critics have likened him to Pynchon; alas, I don’t think that’s quite right, either.

Suspicions are confirmed with the opening of the third volume where Okada’s first-person narration is brushed aside every third or fourth chapter in favor of newspaper clippings, epistolary writings, old war story flashbacks, and highly allegorical children’s tales. Indeed, there’s such a bewildering array of styles and techniques here that it would require a superhuman novelist to keep them all focused on the same substantive points. Murakami, however, is only occasionally superhuman. In many passages, Wind-Up Bird is a rather serious (and, I suspect, coldly unrelenting) indictment of Japanese military aggression and lingering old-world norms. In others, we get well-developed asides on designing clothes, programming computers, drawing maps, cooking spaghetti, and so on. At still other points, Murakami explores in equally compelling capacities both the macabre and the mendacious, the hallucinatory and the hellish. Wind-Up Bird is an incomplete quilt with many fascinating patterns, but no unifying theme.

Mishima: 5 / 10 
Endo: 9 / 10 
Abe: 7 / 10 
Murakami: 8 / 10 

The Book of Disquiet

Throw Emerson and Camus into a blender; pour the resulting contents into six separate glasses; randomly select one of these glasses and smash the rest of them out on the back porch; return to the remaining glass and just sit there staring at it as its components slowly separate from one another. Drinking this glass is like reading The Book of Disquiet.

Fernando Pessoa / Portuguese / 1982 / 262 pages
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa 

To say this book was published in 1982 is to assert three falsehoods. First, it is not really a “book” so much as it is a treatise, a meditation, or a collected work; second, its “publication” played out in phases and stages across different languages, different editors, and different schools of thought; and, third, the year “1982” conveys nothing useful about the book’s contents or historical vantage point as it was published almost five decades after Pessoa had passed away in 1935. Even the cover of the book itself bears deceptive information: Pessoa never signed the actual manuscript, rather attributing it to a pseudonym — Bernardo Soares — to whom he assigned personality traits and motivations distinct from his own. The text fragments that make up The Book of Disquiet were discovered lumped together (unordered and undated) in a large trunk after Pessoa died and the fragments, when considered as a whole, are almost completely devoid of any concrete plot details that would lend themselves to a justifiable ordering. Some editors sequence the fragments thematically; others by their best guesses about the chronological order of their composition. There are editions that clock in around 250 pages and there are others that easily double that.

If you think this would make for an intriguing, organic work then you are right. If, instead, you think this all sounds bewildering and tedious, you would also be right. After having read (and at times, struggled) through the book, I fall somewhere in between: this is a wholly unique work that counters half-developed ideas with sheerly brilliant passages, frustratingly vague meditations with insightful, incisive prose. It is on the whole worth reading, at times eminently quotable, and in parts purely musical in its use of words and phrases.

Concretely, the book charts the meditations of a desk clerk who spends his idle evening hours drafting a personal quasi-diary, but all tangible plot details skitter into oblivion in the first handful of pages. The desk clerk is a disenchanted, disaffected, indeed disquieted narrator who oscillates between timidity (most frequently) and outright arrogance (on occasion) in his descriptions of himself, his countrymen, and their surroundings more broadly. The repeated themes are the overwhelming complexity of daily life and the unerring frivolousness of efforts aimed at unraveling this complexity. To emphasize this point, Pessoa resorts to descriptions of torrential rain and storm systems, the dark night sky and the endless stars that populate it, and the unknown allures of the far-ranging countryside. These landscapes are vast, unpredictable, and unknown just as our relationships with one another and with ourselves are volatile and infinitely nuanced. For Pessoa, it’s hopelessly difficult to establish meaning in events, to establish meaningful contact with friends and family. To this end, he’s wary of love, of ambition, of success, of a whole innumerable host of other perfectly normal human sensations and feelings. This weariness is borne out of the innate subjectivity, the inherent self-construction (perhaps even self-deception) at play in these sensations. It is an intellectually honest, but practically hopeless position to adopt. The logical conclusion is disquietude, or a deep-seated anxiety about ourselves and our world. Pessoa’s narrator has had the rug ripped out from under his feet and his disjointed musings threaten to do the same to the reader as well.

Rather than a book of stories or a book of symbols, this is a book of aphorisms. They often ring true, leaping off the page and battering you about the face with their succinct wisdom; at other times, they are too vague or rhetorically circular to make much sense. Thus, while we’re sometimes given pithy sentences that are breathtaking in their imagery and insight, we are also offered up phrasings along the lines of: “I don’t think what I feel, but I feel what I think.” I’ve never been particularly amenable to sentiments along the latter lines (and many of the great essayists, even Emerson himself, occasionally indulged in them), but I was enthralled with Pessoa’s formulations along the former lines. Indeed, I’ve rarely encountered a book that so frequently prompted me to make mental note of truly exquisite passages. To that end, I anticipate returning to The Book of Disquiet frequently in my own future (feeble!) attempts at writing.

But if you need something to hang your hat on, good luck. The drawbacks to the book are its near total lack of empirics, specifics, or anything that resembles a planned trajectory. Because of this, the narration is prone to contradictions (it seems at various points, for example, that Pessoa alleges that he can never know anyone including himself, but also that, by virtue of knowing himself in great depth, he also knows all people because humans are not so inherently different from one another) and tends to drag whenever the text fragments exceed more than a few solid paragraphs. The book smacks of the poet in its composition: it is almost painfully obvious that Pessoa is incapable of dwelling (or just perhaps unwilling to dwell) on a fixed point for a prolonged period of time, developing it in depth and adding layers of complexity. One of the benefits of this approach is also the same as one of its biggest drawbacks: the text fragments are light and ephemeral, easy to consume, but difficult to hang onto once you’re through them. If you lose your place in the book and have to search for the page you were on, you’ll find yourself wondering “Have I read this already? Maybe I have, but … ?”

One of the more interesting tidbits of information about The Book of Disquiet is that your impression of its content and quality are to some (nontrivial) extant contingent upon the edition you picked up. I have read in a few places that the Jull Costa translation is regarded as the “best” translation of the book, but I have to think this is somewhat of an open question. My edition contains 259 text fragments drawn from a collection of over 500 and I understand that different editions adopt divergent editorial tactics when deciding how many to include and in what order to present them. Some criticism I’ve read suggests that the book is best consumed in pieces, randomly leafing open its pages and settling on whatever passage comes up. As there’s almost nothing linear about the narration itself, I have to admit that this reading method is probably just as defensible as beginning at page one and reading through to the end. Whether this open-ended nature is a pro or con probably depends on the individual reader. At the end of the day, I like this book, but believe that it functions poorly as a book (or at least as a book as traditionally conceived). I will say, though, that are are more quotable lines in this tome than you can shake a stick at. If you really do enjoy both Emerson and Camus (and are enchanted by the possibilities inherent in their hastily conceived literary child), then I’d highly recommend the book.

Rating: 5 / 10

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Miramar

Infused with a new sense of timeliness after the recent revolts in the streets of Cairo, this short novel explores the heterogeneous mix of influences that fought over the fate of a newly-independent 1960s Egypt; Naguib relies on shifting perspectives and highly symbolic characters to chart out the complicated religious-political landscape in subtle and interesting capacities.

Naguib Mahfouz / Egyptian / 1967 / 181 pages
Translated from the Arabic by Fatma Moussa Mahmoud

For a novel that ostensibly takes place within the confines of a small boardinghouse in Alexandria, Miramar is a fairly complex narrative. Mahfouz centers the book’s action around three angry physical altercations between various guests at the house (which seems a simple enough premise), but the broader social contexts underlying these three altercations are so nuanced that they require almost the entire novel to describe completely. Indeed, as the book cycles through four narrators in rapid succession, it takes four separate tellings of each event before we, as readers (or at least as non-Egyptian readers) can fully comprehend the implications of what played out in the first few dozen pages. This is not to say that the insight we gain at the end is particularly revelatory; this is a book that is simple in its presentation and unpretentious in its writing. Rather, we settle for a highly manageable thesis: our political environment and our social norms profoundly impact our day-to-day interpersonal interactions and, as this landscape changes around us, so do the ways in which we stand in relation to one another. How would the incidents at the boardinghouse have transpired if they had been set 20 years earlier? 20 years later? Mahfouz tentatively offers us some suggestions on both ends, it seems.

This is achieved in a Mann-like (Mann-esque? Mannly? Mannish? by this, I just mean in the style of Thomas Mann) fashion by constructing characters that individually represent different bodies of religious / political / class thought. Thus, the old-school populist character is confronted by the old-school landed gentry, who is in turn thrown in with the new-age independent feminist, who in her own time is challenged by the new-age aristocratic youth looking for ways (however illegitimate) to equal the material acquisitions of his father and grandfather. That they should all butt heads in an environment as mundane as a shabby boardinghouse is so much the better. Mahfouz reminds us that we need not travel too far or search too hard before we run up against the influences of our broader social milieu. The liberals are everywhere; the conservatives are everywhere; an argument is a handshake. But a repeated handshake, even between the same two people, is inconstant.

To underscore the mutability of interpersonal relations in a constantly shifting world, Mahfouz employs shifting narrative perspectives. The novel is divided into five sections, the first and last told by an elderly former revolutionary (by far the most sympathetic and cathartic character in the novel) and the middle three related by young men of variously odious dispositions. While the aging revolutionary seems inclined to cast the Egyptian youth in a favorable light, their own thoughts reveal them to be generally hedonistic and morally unanchored. Indeed, what is truly troubling about the novel is its author’s thinly-veiled criticism of Egypt’s male youth during this period. Those young men who committed themselves to a political ideology are literally ruined when the tides shift; whether as a result of fear of the police state or of the guilt they feel about adopting positions different from their friends, they are a psychologically troubled and paranoid lot. Other youth, less committed to ideals, range aimlessly through Egyptian society looking for cheap pleasures and illicit sources of income. They want loose women, fast money, and no restraints.

The broader point is that none of the conflicts in the novel would be taking place if people just understood one another better, but this mutual accord is impossible when the status quo is rent in two. A young woman’s family wants to marry her to an older man for financial gain, yet she demands more of a marriage. Aspiring entrepreneurs’ efforts are thwarted by their suspicions about the state’s confiscation of whatever profits they may make. A person’s viewpoints may classify him as an awe-inspiring rebel on Tuesday, but relegate him to a subversive element on Wednesday. Mahfouz’s characters are often caught in difficult positions. The Communists and the Muslim Brotherhood are equally problematic political parties. Highly motivated women want to have equal opportunities, but no solid infrastructure exists for them to educate themselves. Young, conscientious students struggle to make sense of the political turmoil that engendered their current precarious social situations, but find that it’s almost impossible to synthesize the many contradictory ideologies that were variously invoked in the course of Egypt’s push for independence.

To this end, the novel is a highly interesting cultural set piece. Beyond that, though, I think it has some structural problems and is overall too simple and abbreviated in its construction to be considered a true masterwork. At the novel’s outset, italicized passages are interspersed with the normal flow of narration and these are, it seems, intended to be flashbacks that are conjured up by whatever the narrator is currently experiencing. These are used to great effect early on in the novel, but become increasingly sparse as the novel progresses and eventually disappear completely (for no apparent reason) by the time it concludes. The repeated structure of events-viewed-from-different-angles carries on a bit further than is actually useful, which is unfortunate for a book that lies closer to a novella, rather than an actual novel, in its length. There is also probably an inherent difficulty in reading the book without being well-steeped in Egyptian history; no doubt there was a whole range of references I failed to pick up on with my limited knowledge of the highly complicated nature of Egyptian politics.

Mahfouz was famously prolific, however, and there’s certainly enough in Miramar to whet one’s appetite for more. Along with Salman Rushdie, he was also an incredibly important and controversial figure in the Islamic world. I’m not sure I selected the best point of entry into Mahfouz’s massive body of work, but Miramar is much shorter than many of his other, denser books and its international reputation is well cemented. I’d recommend it heartily for those interested in the current events transpiring in Egypt or for those consciously looking to move into Middle Eastern literature.

Rating: 4 / 10

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Falconer

A more measured and restrained novel than most of its reviewers assert, Falconer nonetheless provides a compelling and straightforward take on prisons in America; intermittently great, but generally too sparse, the novel can easily be knocked off in a couple days of focused reading and this makes it worth the venture.

John Cheever / American / 1977 / 211 pages

Occasionally there exists an environment that falls so far outside the societal mainstream — but at the same time is so self-contained — that it begs for novelistic treatment. Consider the bizarre and nuanced intricacies of the academic life and of the many great “campus” novels it has engendered (Pnin by Nabokov, for example, or Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis). Think also of the mental ward (Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), the courthouse (Kafka’s The Trial), and the sanatorium (Mann’s The Magic Mountain). These institutional settings provide fodder for the exploration of characters in extremis as they navigate exaggerated microcosms prescribed for their conditions by society at large. Rather than studying what happens when a healthy and an ill person are thrown together, let us instead observe the interactions of a roomful of sick people. Rather than exploring the follies of one professor set loose beyond the boundaries of the university, let us instead pile into the same room a whole department of academics and witness their petty bickering and insecurities. By writing about representative human behaviors in unrepresentative social situations, authors stand to make profound contributions to our understanding of the way people think and act.

This is the tactic John Cheever employs in Falconer, a novel set in a 1970s correctional facility in the American Northeast. While flashbacks and prison breaks sometimes push the narration beyond the facility’s walls and watchtowers, by and large we’re given a detailed, yet brief, glimpse into prison life. Due to its brevity and structure, I would argue that it is a difficult book to appraise. In the first few pages, the reader feels as if he’s going to be reading a book written with the purpose of indicting the prison system and its practices. Then, a bit later on, it seems the book is a treatise on the ramifications of drug and alcohol addiction. Count off a few additional pages and now we’re exploring themes of sexuality and homoeroticism. It’s not really until you’ve hit the book’s midsection that you realize Cheever is getting at the sum of these: a variegated patchwork of themes that, taken together, illustrate the powerfully dehumanizing forces at play in the American prison.

Our narrative entry into this world is the convicted murderer, drug addict, and college professor Ezekiel Farragut. The novel begins on the day that Farragut is admitted to the Falconer Correctional Facility and, though the passage of time is somewhat vague, Cheever takes us through at least a couple of years of his incarceration. Farragut’s fellow criminals and the prison’s guards are rendered in fairly predictable and one-dimensional capacities: the guards are uneducated barbarians who occasionally take a liking to one or two prisoners for whom they’ll pass a cigarette through the bars; the prisoners themselves are anecdote-swapping, sex-crazed con artists who are serving out sentences too severe for their crimes; and the medical, legal, and kitchen staffs are cold and unfeeling automatons who harbor little compassion for the incarcerated. This is federal prison; we all know that we don’t want to end up here.

While most of the characters are unsympathetic, Farragut’s case is a bit more complicated. Born into a broken household and forced to fight in a ground war overseas, Farragut is pushed toward drug dependency at a young age and — despite his ability to marry, find a job, and raise a child — can’t escape the fate for which he appears destined: an accidental crime borne out of family and marital tension. Supposedly, he didn’t mean to do it; supposedly, his legal representation was subpar and the jury was biased against him. Regardless of Farragut’s intent, however, it is certainly clear from the narrative that the guy he murdered was a bad dude and had it coming anyway. From all of this, we gather that Cheever feels bad for Farragut and is using him to illustrate the grave injustices of the prison system: the inmates are regularly strip searched and medically examined in front of one another, drug withdrawal episodes serve as entertainment for the prison guards, the food is horrible, etc.

But these accounts and these circumstances are not nearly so shocking as the reviewers indicate and as Cheever perhaps intended. The book reads like a Disney movie in comparison to the prison episodes depicted in The Feast of the Goat by Vargas Llosa. Also, the imaginativeness of the supposed rehabilitation efforts in Falconer are anemic when juxtaposed next to those of considerably more disturbing novels like, say, A Clockwork Orange or 1984. Even the sense of injustice falls a bit flat. To begin, as opposed to a political prisoner in a totalitarian society, Farragut actually did something wrong and the punishment seems generally commensurate with the crime. Secondly, the book’s protagonist is profoundly unsympathetic. I am typically not one to argue that I must feel like I’m in league with the main character of a book in order for the effort to be well-received; however, when the premise of the novel is that overly bad things are happening to undeserving people, I think a legitimate prerequisite of this exercise is that we’re working with a character for whom we can root. I don’t think that Farragut cuts it.

An additional complicating factor in the novel is its treatment of homosexuality. From what I’ve read of reviewers of the novel, it seems like they’ve interpreted Farragut’s brief sexual relationship with another prisoner as a last-ditch effort to retain some manner of human connection in the emotionally sterile environment of the Falconer Correctional Facility. But from what we know of recent biographical treatments of Cheever’s life, the author himself was bisexual; this fact makes interpreting Farragut’s same-sex relationship as some sort of desperate clinging-to-straws endeavor seem, I think, somewhat coarse. Rather than a mechanical outlet, this relationship is a profoundly emotional one for Farragut (as are the same-sex relationships of the other characters in the novel). Certainly writing about this subject in the 1970s was a bit of a high wire act, but I would have preferred that Cheever dwelt more on this issue. I think a charitable reading of the novel would push us to move beyond the simple conclusion that “men in prison get lonely so they turn to each other.” Cheever indicates that there is much more at stake in these relationships, but doesn’t spend enough time exploring the ramifications of his claim.

The end of the novel is too sudden, taciturn, and canned (indeed, the plot device Cheever employs to set the stage for a prison break borrows almost verbatim from The Count of Monte Cristo; as this French mega novel was published in 1844, I would like to think that the 133-year advantage Cheever had on Dumas would have allowed for better innovation, but whatever). Maybe if the novel had been twice as long or, perhaps, twice as provocative, I would have thought more highly of it. As it stands, the book has its merits. For example, for the second time in about a month, I find myself in awe of an author’s use of letters in a novel; indeed, although Cheever employs far fewer letters than Bellow did in Herzog, what is there is fantastic. Additionally, Cheever’s prose is at times quite good. The descriptive passages are often beautifully rendered and the author does manage to pull at the heartstrings a time or two. At one point in the novel, there is a outright insurrection that takes place at a nearby prison and this event dramatically (but subtly) changes the relationship between the guards and the prisoners at Falconer. Cheever handles this shift in atmosphere masterfully.

As an American author, Cheever is not well-known and, for this reason, I had very few — if any — preconceived ideas about what I should expect from his novel. After having read Falconer, however, I think I’d probably point readers toward another of his works — but which? His other novels are even more obscure than this one and I can’t seem to locate a dependable source for guidance. Much like O’Hara, however, the bulk of his reputation seems to have been cultivated in the short story rather than the novel. If Falconer was too short, perhaps this was the reason.

Rating: 4 / 10

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