Apr 05 2005

A Little Less Magical

I’m not sure what possessed the editors of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung to add Somerset Maugham’s The Magician to their list of 50 great novels of the twentieth century. In the preface to the edition that I have, the author admits that when it was republished, he had not read the book in nearly fifty years. “I had completely forgotten it,” he writes.

The book captures the atmosphere of early-twentieth-century Paris, and specifically of upper-class Britons visiting the Continent for outr? pleasures not to be had at home. As such, it’s better as a historical document than a novel. The protagonist failed to arouse my sympathy, the villain sparked no anger or horror, and the development of the plot was plain to see from about twenty pages in.

I suspect that I passed the proper age for reading this novel at least a decade ago. I had a similar problem with John Fowles’ The Magus, another book dealing with appearances of magic in our mundane world. Fowles’ story had been praised to me as life-changing; I found it wavering between silly and dishonest. (Basically, after all of the setup, The Magus does not take its conjuring seriously either as mysticism in an essentially non-magical world or as an actual manifestation of the supernatural.) Brad DeLong and his commenters have some thoughts on books and their sell-by dates.

The Maugham strikes me as an apprentice work. Maybe it’s somehow much better in German translation.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/04/05/a-little-less-magical/

Mar 06 2005

Echelon Back Story

The British edition of Body of Secrets, James Bamford’s second book about the US National Security Agency, gives equal billing to Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the subtitle, but that’s just marketing, making the home audience feel good. The same subtitle also alludes to Echelon, an eavesdropping program that was on its way to being notorious, particularly in Internet circles, when the book was first published in 2001.

Both get their due, of course, but the book is really a history of the NSA, the agency that does the lion’s share of America’s electronic intercepts, cryptology, cryptanalysis, signals intelligence and so forth.

I haven’t finished the book, but there’s a lot in it. Factually, it’s dense, with very precise details that show how thoroughly Bamford had done his homework.

Lessons abound. First, how little is new in the fraught world of spying and democratic decision-making. Korea and the early Cold War period produced examples of leaders who did not want to hear what people on the ground were reporting. Resources were allocated to the wrong places; the country was caught flat-footed by events that shouldn’t have been unexpected; there was a critical shortage of personnel who could speak crucial languages. In the early 1950s, it was Korean; half a century later it’s Urdu or Pashtu or various branches of Arabic.

Then there’s involvement by the top leadership in operational issues. Bamford presents convincing evidence that Eisenhower was personally deciding and signing off on the U2 overflights of the Soviet Union. When Powers was shot down, the White House first lied about what happened, and then covered up its own involvement. According to Bamford, some of the officials perjured themselves before Congress. (There are recurring examples of how the mantle of national security is used to cover political embarrassments.)

A less than candid relationship with Congress is another emerging theme. The NSA expected the people to sign the bills and no questions asked. Bamford also presents compelling of far-right influence at the top of the US military establishment. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Eisenhower appointed just before leaving office comes in for particular scrutiny; he was a thorn in the side of an incoming Democratic administration. The Clinton team might have done well to reflect on this example when they came into power in 1993.

Bamford also notes that the Soviets had stationed 161 nuclear warheads in Cuba during the missile crisis. This was not known in the wider world until the 1990s.

Bamford, by the way, is an extraordinary reporter. For his first book on the topic, he fought off legal threats from the NSA and discovered boxes of interesting material lying around, unclassified but unread. That enabled him to put together a good picture of an agency that officially didn’t exist.

Amongst the skulduggery, self-righteousness and partisan slant that Bamford digs through, there are positive signs as well. Foremost among them is the existence of the books themselves. Without the US Freedom of Information Act, they could never have been written, and if there were a US Official Secrets Act similar to the one in Britain, they could never have been published. Between the first and the second, the attitude of the NSA changed, too. They are no longer “No Such Agency,” and Bamford received a reasonable amount of cooperation for the second book.

Back in the late 1980s, the then-director of the NSA came to talk to a class I was taking on intelligence and the history of the 20th century. He said there was a “lot of bone poop” in The Puzzle Palace. But then that’s what he would have to say, isn’t it? A decade and a half later, much has changed, but the problems of oversight, of balancing spying and democracy haven’t.

Speaking of reviews books I haven’t finished yet, the second ninth of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is a bit of a slog. The lead characters in this section, Jack Shaftoe and Eliza the improbable Welshwoman, aren’t yet interesting in and of themselves, their dialogue tends to exposition (worse, exposition of history I already knew), and there isn’t much suspense in their exploits. I’d been warned about this part of the book, and friends say the second and third volumes are much better. Here’s hoping.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/03/06/httpfistfulofeuros-netafoeechelon-back-story/

Feb 28 2005

If On a Winter’s Night a Publisher

Brings forth the fiftieth and last of its great novels of the twentieth century, a resolutely head-spinning inquisition of a book by Italo Calvino, one that keeps introducing a novel titled If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. In this, the coldest week in Munich in twenty years, the series not only takes notice of the weather, it refuses to end, spiraling instead into this ouroboros of a book.

Over the last four weeks, the editors have toyed with the readers and the season, jumping from Peter Hoeg’s tale of Greenlanders in Denmark, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, to the hothouse of colonial Vietnam in Margeurite Duras’ slender, tender The Lover, and now, of course, to Calvino’s winter night.

I’ve read not quite 30 of the books in the set; unfortunately, the long ones are the ones that are still to com. Or perhaps fortunately, I’ll be savoring them for longer. But I will miss the sense of making progress through the lot, and the punch of works such as Coup de Grace, Heart of Darkness or Voices of Marrakesh owes a good bit to their compactness, to their verbal and artistic tightness.

I hope to have some more capsule reviews up soon, but to wrap up the series, a few facts and figures.

Male authors: 46 Female authors: 4

Rough geographic origin –
American: Paul Auster, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Patricia Highsmith, John Irving, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck
Argentine: Julio Cortazar
Austrian: Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Arthur Schnitzler
Belgian: Georges Simenon, Marguerite Yourcenar
British: E.M. Forster, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ian McEwan, Oscar Wilde
Canadian: Michael Ondaatje
Czech: Franz Kafka
Danish: Peter Hoeg
Dutch: Harry Mulisch, Cees Nooteboom
French: Marguerite Duras, Julien Green, Marcel Proust, Claude Simon,
German: G?nter Grass, Uwe Johnson, Eduard von Keyserling, Wolfgang Koeppen, Siegfried Lenz, Rainer Maria Rilke, Botho Strau?, Martin Walser
Irish: James Joyce
Italian: Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Primo Levi
Ladino: Elias Canetti (a problematic identification)
Polish: Jurek Becker, Joseph Conrad, Andrzej Szczypiorski
Spanish: Jorge Semprun
Swiss: Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Max Frisch, Hermann Hesse
Uruguayan: Juan Carlos Onetti

Year of publication:
Before 1900: 1 (Dorian Gray; don’t know why it’s in a “20th century novel” list…)
1900-1909: 3
1910-1919: 5
1920-1929: 4
1930-1939: 4
1940-1949: 1
1950-1959: 8
1960-1969: 4
1970-1979: 4
1980-1989: 13
1990-present: 3

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/02/28/if-on-a-winters-night-a-publisher/

Feb 11 2005

Ray Bradbury

Through a series of stupidities, when I moved from Washington to Germany, I lost a fair number of books. Several hundred, I think, but it’s a little too sad to count them up. There was, and still may be, a list I made when packing.

An indulgent winter evening’s thought is which one I would most like to have now. It changes, of course, with time, but the one I would most like to lay my hands on is one that I never read.

The book is Green Shadows, White Whale by Ray Bradbury, and I wish I had it because it’s autographed. Back when I worked in bookselling, I accumulated a fair number of autographed books, but there are only three that really thrilled me: the Bradbury, Jimmy Carter’s story of his first election, and a galley by Carl Sagan (who was as gracious as can be in an interview and really was a true geek, but that’s another story).

Two of the three I got to meet in person, but not Bradbury, alas. His wife passed away in 2003, and the book I have in my hands now, One More for the Road, may well be his last.

He writes short stories better than anyone I can think of. When they’re on, every word advances the story, sets up the ending, not one out of place and not one too many. There’s wit, there’s snappy dialogue, but more than that there’s wonder and pathos and fate and exuberance and heartbreak and hope and surprise and compassion.

He’s famous for The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, both of which landed him in the science fiction marketing niche, but both are full of rich metaphors and deft social criticism.

Even in his eighties, he surprises. The current book has a surprisingly sympathetic story of what it was like to be a gay man in the 1940s. There’s a bright blaze of rage at writers who waste their talent. There’s a wild romp through avant-garde cinema. And for a man who’s been writing about death since his twenties, there are several intimate looks at the final mystery. Death is no longer a Mexican carnival, a breath in the night, something wicked this way coming; now for Bradbury it is something like a companion.

Ever since I discovered The Illustrated Man squirreled away on my parents’ bookshelves and shivered, delighted and frightened by its creepy tales, I’ve been enthralled. Not everything is great — Dandelion Wine is best left in the barrel — but so much is so wonderful.

October is his month, Halloween his holiday, small-town Illinois as much his natural habitat as Mars or Los Angeles, and just when you think you know where the story is going, it goes somewhere else.

“The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair” is beautiful, bittersweet, brings tears every time I read it. And who hasn’t had an affair like that?

All kinds of love shine through in One More for the Road, not least what he writes in his afterword to the collection

Then again, simply put, I have never been jealous of other writers, only wanted to protect them. So many of my most beloved authors have suffered unhappy lives or incredibly unhappy endings. I had to invent machines to travel in time to protect them, or at least say I love you. Those machines are here.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/02/11/ray-bradbury/

Feb 07 2005

A Note …

Upon Reading the First Ninth of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle

It is a Frolick, a Cornucopia of interesting things, a narrative of the discovery of the calculus, scientific feuds, dissection, Religious Dissent, changing fashions in art, the return of comedy to the English stage, computation, coinage, banking and much, much more. One of the Leading Characters, Daniel Waterhous, is a bit of a Forrest Gump of history, accidentally giving New York its name here, helping the young Benjamin Franklin there, keeping Isaac Newton alive as an undergrad, and so forth.

It’s not particularly a Novel, certainly not all that interested in character and personality. As a friend of mine once remarked about Patrick O’Brian, history drives the plot, rather than artistic concerns. This makes it appear a bit haphazard at times, and Stephenson is also prone to winks at the audience (there is a demo of a computer) that strike me as forced.

More interesting, however, is the Argument of the Work: That the Baroque period is the birth of modern Europe. The Wars of Religion have given way to dynastic and territorial concerns. Alchemy is fading, outshone by Natural Philosophy. Paper money is on its way in, along with joint stock companies and global markets. England’s Glorious Revolution (a Dutch invasion) will put paid to Divine Right, at least in that part of the continent, completing Cromwell’s work. Christendom is being replaced by Europe.

In politics, the Argument is not bad. By convention, the Peace of Westfalia is the beginning of the modern state system, particularly the notions of sovereignty and non-interference. (These are eroding today, but that’s another story entirely.) While that’s a bit before the story begins, the period that Stephenson is writing about is the time when the system comes together. We’ll see how the Argument holds up over the next 2700 pages.

In his acknowledgements, Stephenson indirectly addresses the size of the work:

Many other scholarly works were consulted during this project, and space does not permit mentioning them here. Of particular note is Sir Winston Spencer Churchill’s six-volume biography of Marlborough, which people who are really interested in this period of history should read, and people who think that I am too long-winded should weigh.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/02/07/a-note/

Dec 17 2004

Halfway There

This spring, the German newspaper whose web site isn’t quite as bad as another’s began publishing a series of 50 Great Novels from the Twentieth Century. It’s an admirable project in many ways — not least a cover price of EUR 4.90 per hardback. Thirty-seven books have been published so far, and I’ve now read about half of the whole list. Which is as good a point as any for taking stock.

I haven’t quite read 25 of the 50, but let’s face it, with Deutschstunde (German Hour, Siegfried Lenz, no. 28) clocking in at nearly 800 pages, and hefty volumes such as Jorge Semprun’s What a Beautiful Sunday! (Was für einen schönen Sonntag, no. 17) and Juan C. Onetti’s The Short Life (Das kurze Leben, no. 11), it’s going to be quite a while before I manage all of them.

As noted previously, I’m mostly reading shortest to longest. Maybe not the most ambitious approach, but there it is. I’m also not reading the German translation of books that were originally written in English. And I’m a bit agnostic about books that are translations from third languages. I’ve read Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, no. 1) and Peter Hoeg (Smilla’s Sense of Snow, upcoming in deep winter at no. 47) in English, but Marguerite Yourcenar (Coup de Grace, no. 15) in German.

It’s a strong, interesting and quirky list. I still find it charming that the editors making the selection deliberately chose great novels and not the greatest novels. That freed them considerably, and spared us in the audience a number of tiresome debates. Still, there are a number of gaps.

The most troubling of these is the shortage of female authors. There are only four. What gives? No Iris Murdoch? No Toni Morrison? No Virginia Woolf? No Willa Cather? No Margaret Mitchell? No Margaret Atwood? No Doris Lessing? And that’s quite literally just off the top of my head in about two minutes, and only novelists writing mainstream fiction in English. The selection is otherwise so interesting, so erudite, so intriguing that I have a really hard time squaring it with the near-total male dominance. Readers are surely missing out on great works, which is a pity.

The other gaps — Africa, Asia, anything fantastical — were mentioned in my first piece on the collection. Enough of what’s not there. On to the delights. Here are brief reviews of the novels that I’ve read so far, not all of which I’ve read recently.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I had my Kundera phase while the Berlin Wall was still standing, so recollection is a little faded. In dissident literature, Unbearable Lightness was a good place to start, capturing the absurdity of late Communism and the struggles for life and authenticity behind the Iron Curtain, but I preferred The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The story was tighter, the epigrams pithier. On the other hand, the film adaptation of Unbearable Lightness is one of the most successful I’ve ever seen, and dead sexy. Finally, speaking of dissident literature, it’s odd that there are no Russians among the Sueddeutsche 50. Was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich too true to rate as a novel?

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose. There’s such a vast critical literature about this one that it’s hard to add anything except an unhesitant recommendation. Memorable characters, tight plot, surprises at the end, a font of erudition, symbolic levels that repay close attention. Eco recently wrote a book about translation as negotiation, and he is fluent in numerous languages, so I suspect that whatever tongue you find this book in it will be full of unexpected delights.

Günter Grass, Cat and Mouse (Katz und Maus). A good place to start on one of postwar Germany’s seminal authors. The style is dense and unforgiving, and a friend quit reading it because, he said, “Nothing happens.” Ah, but it does. The characters grow up in wartime Danzig, and the most important action takes place out of sight. Why does the narrator still admire his school friend decades later? What drove the friend to heroism, and other things? Grass wrestles with duty and friendship, love and loss, faith in wartime, nation and more, all in less than 150 tightly written pages. Worth taking the time to think about each step.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. If you didn’t read it in school, now is as good a time as any. The prose isn’t demanding, but the portrait is rewarding. One of the books that non-Americans constantly cite as defining America. I’m not sure of the causality involved, but this is part of how others see us.

Thomas Bernhard, The Loser (Der Untergeher). Scurrilous and yet congenial. Three pianists, two unknown, the other Glenn Gould. Gould’s talent annihilates the other two, one quite literally. Told with no paragraph breaks over its entire length, presented by an entirely unreliable narrator, initially off-putting and at the end simply enticing. Like spending an evening with a garrulous, slightly tipsy, disreputable cousin who regales you with tales that are probably lies but they’re such pleasure to listen to that you don’t care. Also says things along the way about the price of art and competition among the creative.

Paul Auster, City of Glass. Supposedly a meditation on language and identity in the Big City, but in the event just tiresome. Maybe in the mid-1980s its form was innovative; I doubt it. How many times does one have to encounter the device of inserting the author into the fiction before it becomes tiresome? For me the answer was twice, and I read both of them more than a decade before I read City of Glass. Once the initial tricks had been played out and this novel was plodding along, the only interesting question was whether the main character will have an affair with the only female character. He doesn’t. Not quite as bad as the Handke book, but not time well spent.

Elias Canetti, Voices of Marrakesh (Die Stimmen von Marrakesch). Here’s what I wrote previously: I hadn’t read Canetti before, but had bumped into him in Peter Conradi’s biography of Iris Murdoch. Reading German is enough of an effort that I prefer short books, and Voices of Marrakesh is helpful here. It’s also apparently simple, a series of sketches of the city from Canetti’s stay while vaguely attached to a film company. The sketches start short, and outside the city’s gates. Each grows a little longer and moves to the heart of the city. One of the longest passages concerns a visit to the Jewish cemetery where none of the gravestones remained standing.
“But in this desert cemetery for Jews there was nothing. It is the unvarnished truth, a moonscape of death. The beholder does not care in the least who lies where. He does not stoop to look, and he does not try to solve the riddle. They are all there like rubble, and one wants to scurry away like a jackal. It is a desert of the dead, where nothing ever grows, the last, the ultimate desert.”
Camus came to mind, but a Camus in which the plague does not recede. Gradually, Canetti works his way back out, the sketches shortening again, echoing the first pieces in subject but refracted by his experiences in the heart of the labyrinth.

Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story (Traumnovelle). Later novels that plumb the dark side of domestic life, gripping tales of obsessive love, and stories that frankly address the power of sex all probably owe a little something to Schnitzler’s work in general, of which this is a good example. A Viennese doctor in the era of Freud, Schnitzler delved into the unconscious, explored unexpressed urges and made stories from their consequences. If the acts in Dream Story seem a little tame, that’s probably because we’ve had another 80 years of writing that has plowed similar fields. Still, the characters are well drawn, the language compelling and the symbolism apt.

Peter Handke, The Keeper’s Fear of the Penalty (Die Angst des Tormanns vor dem Elfmeter). Terrific title. Rotten book.
(In something like fairness, I note that the commenters said Handke can do much better.)

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. One of the nice things about this series choosing great novels rather than trying to pick the greatest novels is that the Joyce pick isn’t Ulysses (though the edition of Portrait was published the week of Bloomsday). That said, I read the book before 1990 and haven’t re-read it for this edition, so all I have is a fuzzily fond recollection. It didn’t make an impact on me like Dubliners did, though probably for reasons outside of the novel itself.

Marguerite Yourcenar, Coup de Grace. All is not quiet on the Eastern Front. An unusual love triangle collides amidst the debris of two crumbling empires, the end of the ancien regime in the Baltic hinterlands. A reminder of how Germanic Baltic Europe once was. Classically constructed in its dramatic unities, the main story is bound in a frame that reminds readers of how unclassically the twentieth century unfolded. The shots fired in the novel?s pages echo in anyone who has visited the Baltics and noticed the silences left by the peoples who no longer inhabit the region.

Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr Ripley. The mystery genre approaches high art. Ripley brings the portrait of the killer as a disturbingly reasonable disturbed young man. The book also offers the period delights of a carefully observed cocktail society post-war America, and its refuge trying to find Bohemia in the south of Italy. It’s not so much a whodunit, but a how will he get away with it. Tense, as a good thriller should be, and filled with convincing characters, as too many thrillers are not.

Uwe Johnson, Speculations About Jacob (Mutmassungen ueber Jakob). The only one I’ve actually definitively stopped in the middle of reading. The fault is entirely mine, because the book is good. It’s about a young man who dies in peculiar circumstances in East Germany, shortly after a brief visit to the West. It’s told through the eyes of two investigators trying to piece together what happened. But truth gets slippery quickly, as befits a setting in the late-Stalinist German Democratic Republic. Are the investigators looking for what happened? Or are they trying to cover something up? How much are the other characters lying? Who is hiding what, and why? Johnson captures all of this, and it is easy to see why the book enraged the East German authorities at the time. The problem is that, like many things about communism, you have to listen to the silences as much as you listen to what is said. (You also have to know a good bit about the setting, history and political conditions, which makes me think that this book unfortunately will find fewer readers as communism receded further into the past.) I found I wasn’t able to concentrate enough for sustained periods of time to keep things straight, so I put the book aside. I have no doubts about its greatness, I’m just not up to it right now.

Julio Cortazar, The Pursuer. A thinly veiled biographical sketch of the last days of Charlie Parker, The Pursuer grapples with the price and the mysteries of art. Where does creativity come from? What toll does it take? What personal failings can the creation of the new excuse? Deft writing, a clear-eyed invocation of the beauty of jazz, the destruction of drug abuse, and the relationship between writer and subject all pack this slender meditation. Unlike the sax player’s verbal solos that melt into air when his biographer leaves his presence, Cortazar’s insights and questions persist like a note held long after the end of the performance.

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge). The book jacket claims that Rilke fretted for years that he would not live up to the poetic achievement of this book, and it’s easy to see why. Lushly written, demanding and enticing, the book circles around the childhood of a down and out Danish nobleman, eking out an existence in bohemian Paris. At times as vivid and fantastic as a fever dream, Brigge’s stories sketch his path from luxury to penury. More importantly, though, they explore his inner states, constructing a psychologically true portrait where the line between reality and fantasy is thin indeed.

Wolfgang Koeppen, The Greenhouse (Das Treibhaus). Terrific novel of the early days of the Bonn republic. Germany is just getting re-established as a democracy, and a loner social democratic parliamentarian fights remilitarization. Just as much, however, he fights his own moral battles about political action. What is a vote of conscience? What is grandstanding? Keethenheuve hates the latter, is driven to the former and is plagued by the apprehension that they are one and the same. He sees people from the Third Reich rising again in the postwar period, and opportunists of all stripes chasing power and money. Koeppen captures the political side of the Wirtschaftswunder, and his MP is nicely drawn, no cardboard hero but a man of many faults. The book also sketches many types recognizable in German politics today and nourishes a number of myths still present.

Graham Greene, The Third Man. Slight but compelling. Love, intrigue and espionage in the ruins of postwar Vienna. Read it ages ago, but remember it as not as preachy as some of his other novels with a riveting story and as fine a portrayal of the aftermath of war as could be wished.

Eduard von Keyselring, Waves (Wellen). The vanishing morality of nineteenth century nobility takes center stage in the collision of families vacationing on the Curonian spit, a barrier island off the coast of what is now Lithuania. Thomas Mann famously took holidays here (his house draws many mostly German tourists), and it was a fashionable summertime retreat at the end of the nineteenth century. One sprawling noble family takes up residence near the hut where a former countess is living with her artist lover, and numerous romantic entanglements ensue. Driven more by character than plot, the book also meditates on art and meaning, all the while giving a strong sense of the clash of land and sea that is the backdrop for the more human conflicts of its drama.

Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden. Still slightly scandalous, McEwan’s tale follows four orphans immediately after their parents’ demise as they lose their way and try to recreate something approaching normality. The sense and setting are similar to what led punks to shout “No future!” in a Britain where decline was not an issue but pervasive. Strange, salacious, superb.

Franz Kafka, America (Amerika). An odd choice among Kafka’s works. Unfinished, set far from his home turf, and a bit unstructured even for him. I suspect it’s on the list just to provoke people into reading an unexpected Kafka work, although it’s not like the editors felt compelled to include works from all the canonical German writers (Thomas Mann is conspicuously absent, for example). Kafkaesque, of course, even without bugs.

Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines. Another odd choice, in that it was listed as non-fiction, travel literature when I read the book, which was ages and ages ago. A vivid evocation of another way of seeing the world, an exploration of dreams and reality. Not much else remains in memory more than a decade after reading the book, other than fondness and willingness to read it again.

John Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat. Another one that I read long before the turn of the century. A good place to start with Steinbeck. It’s merged a bit in memory with Cannery Row, with which it shares, I think, a setting.

Peter Hoeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Another mystery novel that escapes into highest art, with the help of a particularly deft translation into English. A peculiar death in Copenhagen’s close-knit community of Greenlanders reveals darker sides to Denmark’s apparently tidy and egalitarian society. Hoeg writes brilliant action and spins out a gripping plot, but it’s his command of language and image that struck me continuously throughout the book. His evocation of mood, his rendering of light and his eye for physical detail add to the delight of a story well told.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2004/12/17/halfway-there/

Jul 07 2004

49 Great Ones and a Stinker

Not too long ago, I noted that the Sueddeutsche Zeitung was publishing a set of 50 great novels of the twentieth century. I got into the game a little bit late, but since then I have been more-or-less keeping up with their pace of one a week, largely by the not terribly edifying expedient of sticking to the shorter ones. It’s been a delight.

Despite their no doubt monumental efforts, the Sueddeutsche editors let a stinker through. Lucky number 13 on the list, Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Keeper’s Fear of the Penalty). The novel purports to show a man’s disintegration, before and after he commits a senseless crime. Trouble is, the crime really is senseless, making it beyond the author’s capability of approaching with his art. The book turns on the sentence, “Suddenly he strangled her.” Snoopy could write as well.

As the jacket copy says, the narrator wanders aimlessly through Vienna and everything irritates him. Most everything about the book irritates the reader as the story wanders aimlessly through the pages. Most irritating were the typographic tricks toward the end that were supposed to simulate the narrator’s almost completed disintegration. Maybe this sort of thing was daring or something similar when the book was published in 1970, but now it just looks silly.

There are 49 other books in the series, no need to bother with this one.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2004/07/07/49-great-ones-and-a-stinker/

Jun 24 2004

A Little Greatness, Every Week

The editors at the Sueddeutsche Zeitung cobbled together a list of 50 great novels of the 20th century. With postwar German modesty, they don’t claim that it’s exhaustive, definitive or representative. Just 50. And great.

The newspaper’s publishing house has been bringing one out every week since mid-March, and they’ll finish the run next February. (By the way, if anyone among our readers can tell me how they make the economics work at EUR 4.90 for each hardback book, I’m keen to hear more.) They’ve used some wit in the schedule – their Joyce choice published the week of Bloomsday, the last selection, for deepest February, will be If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveller…

I see the edition’s distinctive design all over town. With only fourteen issued so far, it’s still possible to tell almost at a glance which book someone is reading. The Hotel New Hampshire? The Name of the Rose? The Unbearable Lightness of Being?

And they’re conversation starters, too. I was reading Voices of Marrakesh, by Elias Canetti, and my doctor’s receptionist remarked that she had just gotten as far as the camels. I had it out at lunch a few days later, and another person at the cafe said it was quite a good book, wasn’t it. Unfortunately, he was leaving, so that was as far as we got, but I imagine many more, fuller, discussions taking place across town, and beyond.

I hadn’t read Canetti before, but had bumped into him in Peter Conradi’s biography of Iris Murdoch. Reading German is enough of an effort that I prefer short books, and Voices of Marrakesh is helpful here. It’s also apparently simple, a series of sketches of the city from Canetti’s stay while vaguely attached to a film company. The sketches start short, and outside the city’s gates. Each grows a little longer and moves to the heart of the city. One of the longest passages concerns a visit to the Jewish cemetery where none of the gravestones remained standing.

But in this desert cemetery for Jews there was nothing. It is the unvarnished truth, a moonscape of death. The beholder does not care in the least who lies where. He does not stoop to look, and he does not try to solve the riddle. They are all there like rubble, and one wants to scurry away like a jackal. It is a desert of the dead, where nothing ever grows, the last, the ultimate desert.

Camus came to mind, but a Camus in which the plague does not recede. Gradually, Canetti works his way back out, the sketches shortening again, echoing the first pieces in subject but refracted by his experiences in the heart of the labyrinth.

A great novel, and one I would not have read without the Sueddeutsche‘s list. I’ve been similarly pleased with Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story, which became a movie you’ve heard of, and Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser.

The list is full of books like these, not the heavyweights you would expect from the 50 greatest novels of the 20th century, but the delights you can find when you’re just looking for 50 great novels. Thus the Joyce choice is not Ulysses but Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Steinbeck is not here with Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, but with Tortilla Flat; Gunther Grass with Cat and Mouse instead of The Tin Drum.

This approach doesn’t always pay off. Kafka’s Amerika is not just unfinished, it’s also not nearly as good as either The Castle or The Trial. I don’t know enough about Faulkner to say for sure, but Sanctuary is just as likely to be an off choice as a quirky one.

The list as a whole is both objectively interesting, and interestingly objectionable. I don’t think such an exercise would be any fun at all if it didn’t produce objections, and mine are more about omissions than anything else.

First, though, the things I like: It leans heavily on writers whose mother tongue is German. That is as it should be; Le Monde‘s list would be different, so would the Asahi Shimbun‘s. Eclecticism beat out snobbery – among English writeres, Patricia Highsmith and John Irving rub shoulders with E.M. Forster and James Joyce. There’s a slight bias to shorter works.

Some things I missed: Asia. Africa. Anything even remotely science fiction or fantasy – surely Stanislaw Lem has enough literary credibility, even if the editors haven’t heard of John Crowley. (And except for its length, Little, Big would have been perfect for the list: surprising, beautifully written, great.) Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Here’s the whole list, for comment and edification. (Not all of the titles may match exactly, as in some cases I’m translating into English the German title of a work originally written in a third language…) This is alphabetical order, not order of publication.

Paul Auster – City of Glass
Jurek Becker – Bronstein’s Children
Thomas Bernhard – The Loser
Italo Calvino – If on a Winter Night a Traveller…
Elias Canetti – Voices of Marrakesh
Bruce Chatwin – The Dreamlines Songlines
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
Julio Cortazar – The Persecutor Pursuer
Marguerite Duras – The Lover
Friedrich Durrenmatt – The Judge and His Executioner
Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose
William Faulkner – Sanctuary
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
E.M. Forster – Howard’s End
Max Frisch – My Name Was Gantenbein
Gunter Grass – Cat and Mouse
Julien Green – Leviathan
Graham Greene – The Third Man
Peter Handke – The Keeper’s Fear of the Penalty Shot
Herman Hesse – Under the Wheel
Patricia Highsmith – The Talented Mr Ripley
Peter Hoeg – Smilla’s Sense of Snow
John Irving – The Hotel New Hampshire
Uwe Johnson – Speculations about Jacob
James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Franz Kafka – Amerika
Eduard von Keyserling – Waves
Wolfgang Koeppen – The Greenhouse
Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Siegfried Lenz – German Hour
Primo Levi – The Periodic Table
Somerset Maugham – The Magician
Carson McCullers – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Ian McEwan – The Cement Garden
Harry Mulisch – The Assassination Assault
Cees Nooteboom – All Souls All Souls Day
Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient
Juan Carlos Onetti – The Short Life
Marcel Proust – Swann’s Way
Rainer Maria Rilke – The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Arthur Schnitzler – Dream Story
Jorge Semprun – What a Beautiful Sunday!
Georges Simenon – The Man Who Watched Trains Go By
Clade Simon – The Acacia
John Steinbeck – Tortilla Flat
Botho Strauss – Couples, Passers
Andrzej Szczypiorski – The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenmann
Martin Walser – Marriages in Philippsburg
Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Marguerite Yourcenar – Coup de Grace

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2004/06/24/a-little-greatness-every-week/

Mar 27 2004

V S Naipaul

Last year, reading around a bit to try to come to grips with Islamic terrorism, and the mindset that drives it, I read Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. Published in 1998, it’s a bit of a seqel to Among the Believers, which was written in the wake of Iran’s revolution of 1979 and published in 1981. My copy of Beyond Belief is dog-eared and underlined, marked up by the kind of active reading I did in grad school, but haven’t done much of since then. A lot of what Naipaul had to say made sense to me. His psychological explanations seemed to open a window into a subject that had been closed to me: not just terrorists and killers, but the people who support them, who venerate them.

Then I read around a bit more and found that Naipaul was regarded as cranky, a dilettante, and that most academic of putdowns – a travel writer. So mentally, I moved his insights into a different column. Anecdotal, interesting, not comprehensive or systematic. That’s part of the reason I haven’t blogged about him before.

A couple of weeks back, I picked up a different Naipaul book, A Turn in the South. The South, as in the southern United States, Dixie, the old Confederacy, and not incidentally my native region. Territory as treacherous and contentious as any in Islam. Layers of history, violence, war, slavery, occupation, poverty, and migration. And deep religiosity. Naipaul wanted to explain – or at least illuminate – the history of the South, both black and white. A tall order.

He starts in Atlanta, a city I knew well, and where I lived for three years in the period immediately after the time that Naipaul did his interviews there. Throughout the book, he talks to people I have either known at one remove, or might well have known. In the first chapter, he stays at the Ritz downtown, which I thought a funny place to get to know the real South, which to me is rural, agricultural at heart, and can only be understood by building on that base. Turns out he was making a metaphoric point about new money in Atlanta, how the city had grown and changed from its origins. Compare that with the only other lodging he mentions, the Ramada Inn in Jackson, Mississippi, a personality-free chain hotel on a highway. Says something about Jackson, too.

Naipaul gets an enormous amount right. I think he does better on the white than on the black, but coming as close as he does is a substantial achievement. He’s up front about his limitations, too.

“Music and community, and tears and faith: I felt that I had been taken, through country music, to an understanding of a whole distinctive culture, something I had never imagined existing in the United States.”

I don’t know why he never imagined a whole distinctive culture existing in the US, but I’m glad that he could overcome that prejudice, and make that admission. The book also has occasional show-stopping revelations that could only come from Naipaul’s Indian, Caribbean, English melange of experiences.

“The past as a dream of purity, the past as cause for grief, the past as religion: it is the very prompting of the Shias of Islam to nobility and sacrifice, the dream of the good time of the Prophet and the first four caliphs, before greed and ambition destroyed the newly saved world. It was the very prompting of the Confederate Memorial in Columbia. And that very special Southern past, and cause, could be made pure only if it was removed from the squalor of the race issue.”

Naipaul is, in short, a very reliable guide for an outsider in very charged and difficult terrain. I not only recognized my native land in his description, I learned about it as well. I hope to write more here of his take on Islam – for Europe faces few challenges greater than understanding and coming to terms with contempoary Islam – and I think Naipaul’s two books are not a bad place to start.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2004/03/27/v-s-naipaul/