Sunday, February 7, 2016

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

I was aware of a daemon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that but more than ever as they were, and more, and more.

Loitering with Intent is the fictional memoir of Fleur, a young woman in London in 1949 trying to make it as a writer. We follow her through a few pivotal months in her life as she recounts the writing and publishing of her first novel and her time as the secretary for an Autobiographical Association turned cult. The book is at turns lyrical, sarcastic, and brilliant.

I am a total sucker for good opening lines, and Spark had me hook, line, and sinker from the start:

One day in middle of the twentieth century I sat in an old graveyard which had not yet been demolished, in the Kensington area of London, when a young policeman stepped off the path and came over to me. He was shy and smiling, he might have been coming over the grass to ask me for a game of tennis. He only wanted to know what I was doing but plainly he didn't like to ask. I told him I was writing a poem, and offered him a sandwich which he refused as he had just had his dinner, himself. He stopped to talk awhile, then he said good-bye, the graves must be very old, and that he wished me good luck and that it was nice to speak to somebody.
I love how much we learn in this first paragraph, how much happens. I also love the image of a woman sitting in a graveyard in the middle of London writing a poem and eating a sandwich. I like my first sentences to give me enough of a framework to follow what happens in the coming pages, but leave enough questions open that I want to keep reading; Sparks does exactly this.

Scattered throughout the book are descriptions of Fleur's writing process as she finishes Warrender Chase, the novel within a novel she is wrapping up and pitching to publishers.
My Warrender Chase, shoved quickly out of sight when my visitors arrived, or, lest the daily woman should clean it up when I left home in the morning for my job, took up the sweetest part of my mind and the rarest part of my imagination; it was like being in love and better. All day long, when I was busy with the affairs of the Autobiographical Association, I had my unfinished novel personified almost as  secret companion and accomplice following me like a shadow wherever I went, whatever I did. I took no notes, except in my mind
As with the opening paragraph, we have a sentence that by most standards would be too long. It tumbles through clauses and phrases before resolving with "it was like being in love and better." It shouldn't work, but does.  These meditations on writing are some of my favorite parts of the book. The joy and release of writing is captured with such clarity; she makes it sound like breathing, making me both jealous and itching to put pen to paper.

When she isn't capturing the writing process we all wish we had, Spark is busy building fantastic characters. Fleur herself is a little flighty but also a fantastic, observant commentator on the world around her. She introduces us to Sir Quentin, the leader of this literary society who is hilariously pretentious and obsessed with rank and title (and also, it turns out, totally insane). As time goes on, Fleur's suspicions that he is up to no good become more and more founded. At one point, over the course of just a few pages, three different Association/cult members remind Fleur that Sir Quentin "insists on complete frankness." Fleur immediately sees how ridiculous the situation has gotten (Sir Quentin is the least frank character I've seen in a while) and turns the phrase back against Sir Quentin brilliantly soon after. We meet Edwina, Sir Quentin's mother whose "green teeth" and "raised, blood red fingernail accompanied by her shrieking voice" horrify her son and delight Fleur. Dottie, the wife of Fleur's lover, sings Auld Lang Syne outside Fleur's window when she wants to chat, says prayers for Fleur's soul, and simultaneously seems to be Fleur's best friend and nemesis. Even the "evil" characters are so overblown that they're endearing.

I really relished reading this. The novel within a novel trope, which I usually find obnoxious, is pulled off perfectly. Sparks uses Fleur's novel to foreshadow build suspense in her own. The plot is nicely paced, the characters endearingly bizarre, and Fleur serves as the perfect guide to it all. My only complaint was that it was too short!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

L'Arabe Du Futur by Riad Sattouf

My mom gave me these books for Christmas, and I set out to read them mostly because I know nothing about Syria and need some serious French practice. Sattouf speaks from the perspective of his two to six year old self, telling the story of his childhood in France, Libya, and Syria, and shifts color schemes as he moves from country to country. His memories from France are tinted blue, Syria red, and Libya, yellow, a device that felt a little forced at first, but that I ended up really liking. 

The bulk of the texts takes place in Syria, and while the drawings are highly stylized, the brutality and poverty of life in rural Syria under Hafez al-Assad is palpable. Most of the more horrific aspects are somewhat glazed over; the stories are told through the eyes of Sattouf as tiny kid. That being said, there are horrifying moments of violence and loss of innocence that stick with you. Early on in their life in Syria, Sattouf watches out a window while a group of kids finds a puppy and then kicks it almost to death before impaling it on a pitchfork. Sattouf's father, obsessed with hunting, takes him out and shoots the only game they can find--sparrows perched on a telephone wire. The next frame zooms in on what Sattouf sees when he goes to collect their haul: the sparrow's feet, blown apart from their bodies, still clinging to the telephone wire. Sattouf's style is all curves and bold lines; images like these are rendered in the same cartoony style as the rest of the book, making them that much more haunting.

As could probably be expected, the treatment of women in Syria does not come across well. Sattouf's mother, a blonde frenchwoman, is permanently aghast and exhausted by the smallness of her life in Syria and the wretchedness of the lives of women around her. We see her through her young son's eyes, so this attitude comes through in small details (her hunched posture and bagged eyes are sometimes labelled to draw our attention to them), and occasional huge outbursts at her seemingly oblivious husband. I would have liked to see more of her internal life and thoughts, but that's a clear limit of the genre, not of Sattouf as a writer.

My favorite moment was when Sattouf starts to read French. He's been studying Arabic in school, but his mother has been slowly teaching him French at home. His family has a stack of Tin Tin comics which Sattouf has been "reading" on his own, making up stories to go with the pictures. One day, he picks up one of the books, and realizes that his is able to decipher words from the squiggles. He is amazed and delighted--the stories Herge wrote are even better than those Sattouf imagined. I love this scene for so many reasons. The vast majority of discoveries Sattouf makes are corrupting; to get to witness a more innocent breakthrough was a very refreshing oasis of hope. Second, I have a vivid memory of EXACTLY THIS MOMENT with Tin Tin comics. Sattouf is totally right. Herge is a way better storyteller than the seven year old imagination. Finally, there is a clear, Herge-esque quality to Sattouf's drawings. This moment was a nice nod to that bridge.

Overall, the books were more interesting as a character study of a confused third culture kid than they were as an account of Syrian culture. Because the whole thing is remembered through the eyes of a small child, the scope is small. The details are salient and feel real, but a lot of the bigger context is missing; possibly purposely since Sattouf himself wouldn't have had context beyond snippets of news and overheard adult conversation at the time.

The first volume is out here and the second is coming soon. If you like graphic novels: highly recommend.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

Strickland perplexed me.  I could not understand his motives.  When I had asked him what first gave him the idea of being a painter, he was unable or unwilling to tell me.  I could make nothing of it.  I tried to persuade myself that an obscure feeling of revolt had been gradually coming to a head in his slow mind, but to challenge this was the undoubted fact that he had never shown any impatience with the monotony of his life.  If, seized by an intolerable boredom, he had determined to be a painter merely to break with irksome ties, it would have been comprehensible, and commonplace; but commonplace is precisely what I felt he was not.  at last, because i was romantic, I devised an explanation which I acknowledged to be far-fetched, but which was the only one that in any way satisfied me.  It was this: I asked myself whether was not in his soul some deep-rooted instinct of creation, which the circumstances of his life had obscured, but which grew relentlessly, as a cancer may grow in the living tissues, till at last it took possession of his whole being and forced him irresistibly to action.  The cuckoo lays its eggs in the strange birds  nest, and when the young one is hatched it shoulders its foster-brothers out and breaks at last the nest that has sheltered it.

Charles Strickland leaves his job as a stockbroker and his wife and children in London to become a painter in Paris, eventually escaping to the isolation of Tahiti.  His life is based not-so-roughly on that of Paul Gaugin, who also abandoned his family to paint, and who lived the last years of his life in Tahiti, and who was, by all accounts, an enormous asshole.  Maugham stretches his characterization of Gaugin to the extreme, making him a callous, perhaps psychopathic narcissist devoid entirely of empathy.  He makes it clear to the narrator, who travels to Paris to interrogate him on behalf of his wife, that he cares very little whether she misses him, or whether she can survive.  One gets the impression from reading The Moon and Sixpence that the only reason Maugham gave the Gaugin-figure the slight disguise of a fictional name is because he didn't want to get sued out of existence for libel.

One question that The Moon and Sixpence is mercifully not very interested in is, how do we approach the art of obviously bad people?  I feel like we have this conversation all the time, whether it's Cosby or Polanski or Tolstoy.  Strickland is very bad; the main crisis of the novel occurs when he casually pries an associate's wife away from him, and then looks the other way as she kills herself by swallowing acid because he failed to love her.  But Maugham introduces the question with a brief accounting of the fame that Strickland has received since his death, and dismisses the question with a wave of the hand: his critics obsess over the personal details of Strickland's sordid life, but nothing Strickland has done can obviate the vitality and innovation of his paintings.

The Moon and Sixpence asks what I think is a much more interesting question: What if the capacity for genius in art precludes things like basic decency, humanity, and empathy?  We praise artists who are sui generis, who can see past the limitations of genre and history to a new kind of art.  What if that is only by possible by rejecting the burdens placed on us by friendship, family, and love?  Strickland doesn't even want fame--his last great act is to paint a masterpiece on the walls of his Tahitian hut while becoming blind from leprosy, and then make his Tahitian wife promise that she will burn it down when he dies.  That's what we want, after all, a devotion to art for art's sake, but there is much that can be sacrificed to that ideal.

The most interesting thing about The Moon and Sixpence is that, it seems to me, Maugham envies the narcissism of his central character.  Let me show you what I mean.  First of all, Maugham cannily makes us wait for most of the novel to "see" one of Strickland's paintings, which for the narrator turns out to be disorienting and disappointing:

I knew nothing of the simplicity at which he aimed.  I remembered a still-life of oranges on a plate, and  I was bothered because the plate was not round and the oranges were lop-sided.  The portraits were a little larger than life-size, and this gave them an ungainly look.  To my eyes the faces looked like caricatures.  They were painted in a way that was entirely new to me.  The landscape puzzled me even more.  There were two or three pictures of the forest and Fontainebleau and several of streets in Paris: my first feeling was that they might have been painted by a drunken cab-driver.  I was perfectly bewildered.  It passed through my mind that the whole thing was a stupendous, incomprehensible farce.  Now that I look back I am more than ever impressed by Stroeve's acuteness.  He saw from the first that here was a revolution in art, and he recognized in its beginnings the genius which now all the world allows.

The narrator tells us that Strickland "did not hesitate to simplify or distort if he could get nearer to that unknown thing he sought."  The narrator himself distorts Strickland's story, by his own admission, but the distortions are not the kind to get us nearer to any sort of unknown truth.  Rather, they do things like "clean up" Strickland's language and cajole his story into the neat, linear "unreality of fiction."  The plot about Strickland and the artist's wife seems wholly manufactured, perhaps imported from a melodramatic film.  Maugham's prose is tame and unadventurous; he aligns himself with his narrator, who is a moderately successful novelist who by his own admission "will continue to write moral stories in rhymed couplets."  Books about art are always about the books themselves, in a way, and it's hard to ignore the disconnect between Strickland's/Gaugin's way of painting and the narrator's/Maugham's way of writing.  The richest and saddest way of reading The Moon and Sixpence is to believe that Maugham has a great sympathy for Strickland's genius, and a melancholy regret that he cannot share it.  The best he can do is appreciate it:

But one fact was made clear to me: people talk of beauty lightly, and having no feeling for words, they use that one carelessly, so that it loses its force; and the thing it stands for, sharing its name with a hundred trivial objects, is deprived of dignity. They call beautiful a dress, a dog, a sermon; and when they are face to face with Beauty they cannot recognize it.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

In my son's eyes I see the ambition that had first hurled me across the world.  In a few years he will graduate and pave his way, alone and unprotected.  But I remind myself that he has a father who is still living, a mother who is happy and strong.  Whenever he is discouraged, I tell him that if I can survive on three continents, there is no obstacle he cannot conquer.  While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years.  I know that my achievement is quite ordinary.  I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first.  Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept.  As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.

I did not enjoy Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake, which seemed to me to obsess over superficial things--meals, houses, knicknacks, lifestyles--without any interest in their deeper implications.  Gogol, the protagonist of that novel, lives a life which is carefully constructed by Lahiri to seem both ordinary and American, and while I stick by that criticism, it's worth conceding that the contrast between Gogol's life and the lives lived by his parents, immigrants from Bengal, is much to the novel's interest.  I think Lahiri's interest in the banal and the ordinary works much better in the stories of Interpreter of Maladies, where the same superficial things can assume a meaningful presence in the more limited confines of short fiction.

As with The Namesake, Lahiri's subject is the intersection of American and Indian identities, and she gives us a host of characters who grapple with that duality: Indian immigrants to America, first-generation American-Indians vacationing in India, white Americans sleeping with Indian-Americans, etc., etc.  She has a special affinity for studying this duality through the eyes of children.  Sometimes this is effective, as in the story "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," in which a young narrator contemplates the plight of the title figure, who visits her parents every night to watch the news about the civil war in Bangladesh, where his wife and children are, thousands of miles away.  Sometimes it does not, as in the story "Sexy," about a white woman having an affair with Indian man.  The narrator of that story has an Indian friend who frets over the adultery of her cousin's husband.  The narrator ends up babysitting this cousin's son, who calls her "sexy"--just like her married lover did--and when the narrator presses the boy to say what he means by that, he defines it as "loving someone you don't know... That's why my father did... He sat next to someone he didn't know, someone sexy, and now he loves her instead of my mother."  From the mouths of babes, I guess.

But the best stories here, I think, are the ones that take place in India.  The title story, about a tour guide who develops something of an obsession with an unhappily married American-Indian woman, mines the cultural divide for a deeper, more universal resonance.  He tells her that he works part time interpreting in Gujarati for a local doctor; she confesses that one of her children is not her husband's.  Western notions of love have failed her, she is unhappy, but he is not a doctor, only an interpreter, and if there is wisdom to be gleaned from her own familial homeland she is unable to access it.  The best story, "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," ignores the question of American identity all together, focusing instead on a chronically sick woman's yearning for marriage.  It has a touch of irony that seems unique among all of Lahiri's earnestness, and for that reason it really stands out.

Lahiri's style is simple and unadorned, blanched of any kind of excess or ornamentation.  It is as self-consciously unmarked as the narrator of "This Blessed House," whose keen desire to fit in is undermined by his new wife, who keeps finding plaster statues of Jesus around the house.  In the context, that seems like a meaningful choice.  In The Namesake I found it tiring, but here it doesn't wear out its welcome, and instead allows Lahiri to uncover a great deal of meaning.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch

Marian knelt down, too.  The bat, a little pipistrel, was pulling itself slowly along the rug with jerky movements of its crumpled leathery arms.  It paused and looked up.  Marian looked into its strange little doggy face and bright dark eyes.  It had an almost uncanny degree of presence, of being.  She met its look.  Then it opened its little toothy mouth and uttered a high-pitched squawk.  Marian laughed and then felt a sudden desire to cry.  Without knowing why, she felt she could hardly bear Mrs Crean-Smith and the bat together, as if they were suddenly the same grotesque helpless thing.

Marian Taylor takes a position as a governess at Gaze Castle, a remote house set among barren moors.  But when she arrives, she discovers that there are no children to be taught; her pupil, rather, is Hannah Crean-Smith, a reclusive but beautiful woman in search of a female companion to help her read foreign languages.  Gaze, cobbled together from any number of Gothic houses, is filled with Gothic types: the mysterious Gerald, who runs the house; Hannah's shrill cousin Violet; the mercurial gamekeeper Denis.  And like any good Gothic novel, Gaze has a secret, though it is dispensed with quite early: Hannah hasn't left the house in seven years, after being abandoned there by her husband Peter, whom she may or may not have tried to push off of a cliff.

Is Hannah a prisoner?  If so, who is her "gaoler?"  Gerald?  Peter?  All of them--including Marian?  Or does she stay there by choice?  If so, what is the difference between being a prisoner and being free?  One of the things that The Unicorn does is interrogate the very notion of freedom, and it wonders to what extent any of us are free.  Marian, appalled at the situation, resolves to kidnap Hannah in order to set her free, and the irony of that is lost on no one--particularly Murdoch.

But Marian's not the first to invent such a scheme, nor is she the last.  In fact, numerous characters, major and minor, try to kidnap Hannah, or persuade her to leave, in quick succession, to the point of parody.  In each case, it doesn't work, and they change their minds about whether its wise, and they change them again.  Hannah remains elusive, simultaneously fragile and unassailable.  Murdoch goes out of her way to compare Hannah to God, and her various gaolers and hangers-on trying to know or claim her.  She discovers a useful metaphor in the image of salmon, swimming upstream:

"Have you ever seen salmon leaping?  It's a most moving sight.  They spring right out of the water and struggle up the rocks.  Such fantastic bravery, to enter another element like that.  Like souls approaching God."

If Hannah is an image of God, then she reveals the way God exists at the nexus of suffering and love.  She suffers greatly, Marian is convinced, and others suffer for her, but to what extent is that suffering redemptive?  Is it different from the love which she seems to provoke from everyone without trying?  The image of the unicorn ties her to Christ:

"Forgive is too weak a word.  Recall the idea of Ate which was so real to the Greeks.  Ate is the name of the almost automatic transfer of suffering from one being to another.  Power is a form of Ate...But Good is non-powerful.  And it is in the good that Ate is finally quenched, when it encounters a pure being who only suffers and does not attempt to pass the suffering on."

Does that describe Hannah?  No one is sure.  It certainly describes the kind of dialogue you get out of Murdoch.  But if Hannah absorbs suffering, she inspires love--not only love for her, but among others.  Every male in the book is in love with Hannah.  And every other page, people find themselves compelled to smooch each other.  Marian smooches, like, three different men, and they all smooch all the other women.  It gets silly, but I think intentionally, but why?  Is the suggestion that Hannah brings these people together, and without her, they would never reach these feelings?  Is that an attribute of God?  Whatever the case, for Murdoch, the lines between love and sex, or at least smooching, are extremely blurred; love is almost always expressed physically, even across gendered lines.

I enjoyed The Unicorn, but I felt that Murdoch's philosophizing fit more neatly in the picaresque mode of Under the Net, rather than the Gothic style she cultivates here.  Something here begs to be taken not seriously, as a parody or genre exercise, and something is deadly serious, but reading the novel I was never quite sure which was which. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

GEORGE: Don't you side with her, houseboy.

NICK: I am not a houseboy.

GEORGE: Look!  I know the game!  You don't make it in the sack, you're a houseboy.


GEORGE: No?  Well then, you must have made it in the sack.  Yes?  (He is breathing a little heavy; behaving a little manic)  Yes?  Someone's lying around here; somebody isn't playing the game straight.  Yes?  Come on; come on; who's lying?  Martha?  Come on!

NICK: (After a pause; to MARTHA, quietly with intense pleading) Tell him I'm not a houseboy.

MARTHA: (After a pause, quietly, lowering her head) No; you're not a houseboy.

With great, sad relief): So be it.

MARTHA (Pleading): Truth and illusion, George; you don't know the difference.

GEORGE: No; but we must carry on as though we did.

There's only four characters in Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: George, a middle-aged college professor; his wife and the daughter of the college dean, Martha; and their two guests, the newly hired biology professor Nick and his wife Honey.  If you read that sentence and can't help think of those two friendly hippopotami, well, you're not alone, because that's what I was imagining the whole time I was reading this play--two fat hippopotami slowly pulling a younger couple into the sadistic games of their deeply broken marriage.  Somehow that made it even darker.

Throughout the night--the play takes place in the wee hours of the morning after a faculty party, and all involved are heavily besotted--George and Martha play a number of "games" with each other, some of which seem to be invented on the spur of the moment and some with which they are already deeply familiar.  They have cute names like "Humiliate the Host" and "Get the Guests," and late in the play Nick is even invited to play "Hump the Hostess," which is what it sounds like.  They call each other names, and prod at each other's most vulnerable places.  And yet, there is a sense that, like ordinary games, they have rules: George and Martha's marriage, as much as their hatred each other, is propped up by a shared understanding that verges on madness, or fiction.  As George says, "we must carry on as though" we knew the difference between truth and illusion.

The thing that finally punctures this unhappy relationship--spoiler alert here, since this is the play's "shocking reveal"--is when Martha lets slip that she and George have a son who's off in college.  There is no son; merely a shared fiction born out of the grief and humiliation that the two were unable to conceive.  That's against the rules, George declares, and in spite he "kills" their son by inventing a story about his death in a car accident--illusion of course, but it reduces Martha to ash.

George is a professor of history, and he makes much of the fact that Nick is a professor of biology.  In what seems like a pretty ahead-of-its-time anxiety for 1962, he channels his emasculated resentment of Nick's youth and good looks into a harangue against genetic engineering:

MARTHA (To Nick): What's all this about chromosomes?

NICK: Well, chromosomes are...

MARTHA: I know what chromosomes are, sweetie, I love 'em.

NICK: Oh... Well, then.

GEORGE: Martha eats them.. for breakfast... she sprinkles them on her cereal.  (To Martha, now) It's very simple, Martha, this young man is working on a system whereby chromosomes can be altered... well not all by himself--he probably has one or two co-conspirators--the genetic makeup of a sperm cell changed, reordered... to order, actually... for hair color and eye color, stature, potency... I imagine... hairiness, features, health... and mind.  Most important... Mind.  All imbalances will be correct, sifted out, propensity for various diseases will be gone, longevity assured.  We will have a race of men... test-tube-bred... incubator-born... superb and sublime.

George contrasts biology with history, sameness versus variability, but ultimately the distinction collapses.  Both biology and history are kinds of determinacy, or fatalism, and neither can account for why this marriage has become so poisonous.  That defies any sort of scientific model, of course, because as Martha and George agree, there is no telling what even the basic facts are.  And neither can account for the great act of imaginary creation in which George and Martha's son is born, or the great act of imaginary destruction by which he died.  The play takes the question of nature vs. nurture and ultimately answers with a shrug; to the question of how human cruelty arises, it has no opinion except to observe that it is mostly inescapable.

Ultimately, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seems characteristic of a kind of mid-century suspicion of suburban life, and the atomic family, the kind you see in Rabbit Run and even more recently in  Mad Men and Revolutionary Road, which are all set in the exodus to surburbia of the 50's and 60's.  But none of those book have anthropomorphic, alcoholic hippopotami.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

A man haunted by a fixed idea is insane.  He is dangerous even if that idea is an idea of justice; for may he not bring the heaven down pitilessly upon a loved head?

There is a great story in the climax of Conrad's Nostromo: The title character, the "incorruptible" Capataz de Cargadores, or Head Longshoreman, is trusted with a ship full of silver smuggled out of the San Tome mine to prevent it from falling into the hands of various political-military factions.  Along with him is Martin Decoud, a young journalist and partisan.  They are intercepted by a militia ship, but they manage to unload the silver into a rowboat before their own ship is struck and sunk.  Nostromo returns to the port of Sulaco--the fictional town in the fictional South American state of Costaguana--but Decoud stays on a remote island with the silver, and only the two of them know that it isn't lying at the bottom of the gulf.

But, alas, there's much more than that to Nostromo.  There's hundreds upon hundreds of pages of political intrigue, some of it interesting, much of it confusing, and a cast of characters somewhere in the low hundreds.  Like in Heart of Darkness, Conrad is interested in the lingering effects of colonialism on the human psyche, but the narrow psychological focus of Kurtz and Marlow is widened here to include an entire state.  My understanding is that it's a very reliable depiction of South American politics, but that doesn't keep it from being frequently tedious.  It's never clear what the various factions are fighting for, except personal power, but perhaps that's the point.  The complexity of the narrative is amplified by the fact that much of the novel takes place through flashbacks (and even one flash-forward), and its chronology can be bewildering.

The central figure, Nostromo, is a poor, working-class man who is renowned among the political players of Sulaco for his reliability and judgment.  He's famous, for instance, for riding hundreds of miles through occupied territory and saving the beleaguered president from falling into revolutionary hands.  He is invaluable to the owner of the mine, and the railroad company, and the shipping company, and the parliamentary council, but being useful for the prestigious and wealthy never seems to result in the same kind of prestige and wealth.  Finding himself on shore again after the escapade with the silver, he realizes with a shock that he has let himself be a pawn, as if baptized into a new understanding:

The last act he had performed in Sulaco was in complete harmony with his vanity, and as such perfectly genuine.  He had given his last dollar to an old woman moaning with the grief and fatigue of a dismal search under the arch of the ancient gate.  Performed in obscurity and without witnesses, it had still the characteristics of splendour and publicity, and was in strict keeping with his reputation.  But this awakening in solitude, except for a watchful vulture, amongst the ruins of the fort, had no such characteristics.  His first confused feeling was exactly this--that it was not in keeping.  It was more like the end of things.  The necessity of living concealed somehow, for God knows how long, which assailed him on his return to consciousness, made everything that had gone before for years appear vain and foolish, like a flattering dream come suddenly to the end.

Nostromo's waking is a kind of burgeoning class-consciousness, unique in a novel where most of the lower class are faceless and unindividuated, mostly depicted as a natural phenomenon of violence and havoc, as personal as an earthquake.  These scenes have the kind of psychological spark that makes Heart of Darkness so thrilling, and so frightening, and stand, for me, in great contrast to the political intrigue that takes up most of the novel.  Perhaps it would reward a more patient reader than myself.  Maybe it deserves a second try--Jacques Berthoud once described it as a "novel that one cannot read unless one has read it before"--but I think not any time soon.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

 "My father held tight to my hand as if he were afraid that I would slip away. In fact I had the wish to leave him, run, move, cross the street, be struck by the brilliant scales of sea. At that tremendous moment, full of light and sound, I pretended I was alone in the newness of the city, new myself with all life ahead, exposed to the mutable fury of things but surely triumphant: I, I and Lila, we two with that capacity that together--only together--we had to seize the mass of colors, sounds, things, and people, and express it and give it power."
I felt like a terrible woman/feminist for not loving this book right away. The hype was strong. Jhumpa Lahiri (who I'm obsessed with) called it and its sequels an "unconditional masterpiece," which one could interpret as at least a moderately positive review. I was ready to be hooked and poised to buy all four books at once, hunker down, and read them straight through. That is not quite what happened.

Mostly I was annoyed with the protagonist, Lenù, who spends the vast majority of the book idolizing her friend Lila and agonizing over the ways in which she considers herself to be inferior. Part of that annoyance was probably discomfort at how accurately Ferrante portrays teenage angst and insecurity, but part of it was genuine frustration with the characters. Lenù, who consistently outsmarts her male classmates in school and attracts her fair share of romantic attention (including repeatedly from a boy she claims to be in love with), seems incapable of going more than a page or two without reverting to insecurity about Lila: does she value their friendship? Is she smarter? Prettier? Lila, meanwhile, doesn't care about anyone but herself. Over the course of the novel, she arrives in that terrifyingly powerful place between girlhood and womanhood when girls wield the most power. She manipulates all the family members, friends, and male admirers that she doesn't alienate and seems utterly unworthy of Lenù's affection. It was believable, but infuriating.

Ferrante writes beautifully; her descriptions are haunting, and her ability to articulate in excruciating detail the pain of adolescence and the everyday violence of impoverished communities is impressive. Lenù's acne ebbs and flows (usually perfectly echoing her self confidence); she is in the process of discovering the fallibility of her parents, of realizing how poor and miserable her neighborhood is, of harnessing the power of her voice and thoughts. Around her men are murdered, girls are raped, boys beaten to a pulp, and she tries to make sense of it as best she can. Aspects of her experience felt so real that I couldn't help but empathize, but then she would lapse into another paragraph about Lila's perfection and I lost it again.

I haven't decided yet if I want to read the next book. I care just enough about the characters that I want to see what happens (and really, I want to see if Lila gets the epic downfall she deserves), and I enjoyed the writing, but I don't know how much more Lila adulation I can stand.

Drowned City by Don Brown and Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana

It's strange to be old enough that events I vividly remember from my lifetime are now the subject of graphic novels, historical fiction, and the media. Hurricanes are not a part of my life, but after Hurricane Katrina I was taking a Modern African American Literature class and one of the books was the classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, so we spent a lot of time thinking about Katrina. 

Drowned City is a non-fiction graphic text that reads more like a news report than a novel. There are no characters, just real people like George W. Bush FEMA's Michael D. Brown. There is no narrative arc, just the details of the hurricane and a sad post script about the Ninth Ward. The book is incredibly well-researched and felt like a smaller version of the Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. The watercolor illustrations are beautiful and perfect for the subject matter and tone. 

Turning 10 is magical for children. There is something about those double digits that make kids feel more grown, more responsible, more ready to take on the world. Unfortunately, Armani's 10th birthday coincides with Hurricane Katrina, and she is forced to tackle a reality she's not ready for. When the neighbors leave word that she should tell her parents to evacuate, Armani keeps it to herself because she's afraid of her birthday party being ruined. By the time it's clear that the hurricane is not going to blow over, it's impossible for her family of 8 to leave in her father's small truck. They hunker down in the house and try to survive. While the plot is overly convenient at times, and Armani's overuse of similes feels like a forced attempt to convey a Southern voice, it's an intensely emotional novel that is worth a read. While it is absolutely a novel about Hurricane Katrina, it's also a novel about growing up, family, compassion, and forgiveness.  

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

 "Everything large enough to love eventually disappoints you, then betrays you, and finally, forgets you. But the things small enough to fit into a shoebox, these stay as they were."
If you spend any amount of time with Russian literature (or a Russian babushka), you will be confronted with the idea of the Russian Soul. The Russian Soul sets Russia and Russians on a level above us philistines; it sets them apart from the West, gives them faith in times of crisis, and allows them to see the redemptive beauty of suffering. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekov, etc. all wrestle with this essential Russianness as they try to rationalize their way through their own evolving religious faiths. I spent four years of college trying to figure out what, exactly, the Russian Soul is, and while I still can't define it succinctly, I can confidently say The Tsar of Love and Techno is just oozing with it.

The book starts out with what I think is my favorite vignette of the whole shebang. Roman Osipovich is a censor for the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation in 1930's Leningrad. A classically trained painter, he has been enlisted by the regime to paint away people who have been "disappeared" in photographs, murals, and library books. In their place, he begins to paint the face of his dead brother (who himself has been "disappeared"), leaving a trail of clues for the dead man's son so that he has a record of what his father looked like. Even read on its own, it's an almost perfect little nugget of Russian tragedy: It's beautiful and heart wrenching and you hate the main character so much that by the end you start to love him. 

From Leningrad, Marra takes us to Kivorsk, a town above the arctic circle, to Chechnya, to Moscow. The stories span seven decades and weave in and out of each other effortlessly. Narration shifts from story to story, but the book still somehow feels cohesive and manageable. Throughout, Marra scatters ridiculously Russian characters (a soldier who heavily implies that he lost both of his legs in an explosion in Chechnya, but really got drunk and fell asleep on trolley tracks; a mother who continues to write her daughter letters filled with wildly exaggerated and optimistic versions of her life even after the daughter has moved back in with her, a father obsessed with space, despite never having seen the stars because his home is permanently covered in haze) and absurdly Russian scenarios (a forest made of metal and plastic trees commissioned by the government for morale, a ballet performance by a prima ballerina in a gulag, The Kivorsk Museum of Inner and Outer Space whose exhibits are made up entirely of repurposed trash from aforementioned metal forest). In typical Russian Epic fashion, the characters are all so deeply flawed that you can't help but feel for them even when they do horrible, unforgivable things. When they do, on occasion, redeem themselves, you are suddenly convinced that all the problems in the world are going to work themselves out. 

My only slight issue with it was the ending. The last story circles back to one of the main characters who has died during a land mine explosion. We meet him again after he has died while he hurtles through space in a capsule he and his brother built from trash as kids. His body is slowly disintegrating and his life drifts past him as he listens to a tape of his brother and ex-girlfriend singing to him. This level of tripped out craziness is totally out of character with the rest of the book, and I was pretty annoyed with it until I got to this line: "If ever there was an utterance of perfection, it is this. If God has a voice, it is ours." This is some next level modern Russian Soul insanity, and I totally forgave Marra for getting weird. 

If you love Russia, read this book. If you hate people, read this book. If you love people, read this book. Really...just read this book.