Apr 22 2005

Catching up with Greatness

Not mine, of course, the 50 novels from the Sueddeutsche Zeitung‘s list. Since several of my recent book reviews have been negative or lukewarm, I’ll say here above the fold that the latest batch has indeed brought me in touch with literary greatness.

In the order I have read them, not of publication or anything else:

The Lover, Marguerite Duras, no. 49. As slender, lithe and desirable as its protagonist in her youth, as insightful as she became in her later years. Steamily tropical, rooted in its era, a topical examination of colonialism and exploitation. Yet also a timeless story of love, growth and madness.

The Judge and His Executioner (Der Richter und sein Henker), Friedrich Duerrenmatt, no. 42. A much more tightly crafted whodunit than the Simenon book that preceded it in the series, Duerrenmatt’s book follows a murder in a Swiss village not far from the capital. The location allows him to contrast his country’s self-image to its actual situation, with the country-city divide paralleling many others in Swiss society. He also sketches the Swiss role during the war: his protagonist was fired from a position in Germany for an anti-Nazi remark–an unbelievable affront in the mid-1930s, understandable if tactless by 1942, and by 1945 the only honorable course for a Swiss policeman. The title is also a play on a common statement about Germany’s transformation after 1933, that the land of poets and thinkers (Dichter und Denker) had become one of judges and executioners (Richter und Henker). The story is ultimately less political than psychological, as themes of morality, guilt and greed come to the fore as the action proceeds. (Unfortunately, the summary on the dust jacket gives away a little too much of the plot; skip it if you don’t want to figure out who committed the crime a little more than halfway through the book.)

Under the Wheel (Unterm Rad), Hermann Hesse, no. 46. When I was drafting a stand-alone review of this book, I called it “Old Europe,” for the world that Hesse sketches is what the phrase conjures in my mind. Small villages, horse travel, pervasive influence of one church or another, generations passing with little change. Three of the four Hesse books I have read (this plus Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund) try to paint some sort of timelessness. The book is heavily autobiographical, and the plot is predictable. On the other hand, Hesse subverts the timeless vision as well, showing the cracks in the setup through which modernity will soon come bursting through: the trains, the new ideas of science, the application of historical scholarship to the Bible, the decline of the guilds and the rise of technology. Though he could not have known it, the Great War was less than a decade away. But looking in the other direction, Hesse’s idea of an unchanging society proves an illusion, too. Less than a hundred years before his story is set, Napoleon’s armies had marched through the area, upending the political order and much besides. The mid-century revolutions had not left this corner of Germany untouched either. The only way he can present a tableaux as enduring is to ignore the evidence all around. The book is much better at painting a picture of Europe at the start of the twentieth century than, say, The Magician, but its aspirations are all askew.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, no. 20. One of Brad DeLong’s commenters wrote that no one can appreciate Marlow before reaching age 40, but I think I’m early. This is a great book, and the overlay from having seen “Apocalypse Now” only adds to it. In the framing story he suggests there is not much difference between what the Belgians did in the Congo and what the Romans did in Britain. The lead character isn’t all that keen on Brussels either, calling it “the sepulchral city.” Brilliantly written, portraits of greed, privation and madness, provocative about the meaning of civilization itself. Maybe I’ll try it again when I’m 40 and report back on what strikes me anew.

Couples, Passers-by (Paare, Passanten), Botho Strauss, no. 38. Clever, deft, but I’m not sure what it adds up to. Microportraits from the late 1970s, headed mostly nowhere. A timelessness not unlike Hesse’s, one in which the Wall would be up forever and the problems of consumerism would be much more pressing than the great questions of history. Also like Hesse’s, it outlasted the publication of the book by less than a decade.

The Periodic System, Primo Levi, no 48. Levi, a Jewish Italian chemist from Turin (though not necessarily in that order) tells his story, that of his forefathers, his extended family, his profession and much of his surroundings in 21 exquisite chapters. Each one is named for an element in the periodic table, and the metaphor organizes not only the book as a whole but each section. Precious metals, many of the chapters, rare earths that yield jewels of expression, of human stories and the press of time. He brushes lightly on his time in Auschwitz, which he wrote about in another book, yet that fate is constantly present, and the dramatic climax of the book involves a later encounter with someone from that time. This is one of the books from this list that I would move into the adjacent list of the 50 greatest novels of the twentieth century.

The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman, Andrzej Szczypiorski, no. 41. Szczypiorski saw the war from another of its hottest forges, Warsaw. The novel’s main action follows how Mrs Seidenman, who is Jewish but living in disguise outside of the Warsaw Ghetto, falls into the clutches of the Gestapo and emerges shortly afterward. That she survives is told in the first pages, but the questions of how, and perhaps why, are engrossing throughout. This small story is the springboard for encounters with almost every type of person present in wartime Warsaw, from Volksdeutsche who have lived in Poland all their lives, to young religious, from revolutionary workers to petty spies. Yet none is purely a cliche. Szczypiorski follows many of his characters to the end of their lives–some ends much closer than others–so that the arc of the story seems to have rays springing upward from it, some reaching into the mid-1980s. The book was published in the emigre press, as it has scathing things to say about Communism, too. (Szczypiorski was elected to Poland’s Senate as a Solidarity candidate in the first free elections.) Each of the characters is a rounded person, and Szczypiorski does not present any easy answers. In fact, Mrs Seidenman’s survives because of a particularly unlikely person. A metaphor for Poland?

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/04/22/catching-up-with-greatness/

Apr 18 2005

Very Old Europe

New work by Sophocles? Hesiod? Lucian? Euripides? A precursor to the Illiad?

All coming up, thanks to satellitte imaging technology and a century-old trove of manuscripts brought to Britain from Egypt.

In the past four days alone, Oxford’s classicists have used it to make a series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost for millennia. They even believe they are likely to find lost Christian gospels, the originals of which were written around the time of the earliest books of the New Testament. …

Oxford academics have been working alongside infra-red specialists from Brigham Young University, Utah. Their operation is likely to increase the number of great literary works fully or partially surviving from the ancient Greek world by up to a fifth. It could easily double the surviving body of lesser work – the pulp fiction and sitcoms of the day.


Exciting time to be a classicist, no?

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/04/18/very-old-europe/

Apr 11 2005


Because I mentioned Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver a couple of times earlier this year, I will now add that I’ve finished reading it. The pace picks up a bit around page 800.

To be slightly less unfair, I should say that a number of people have told me that the second and third books are better. And the narrative pace does not detract from the argument about the beginning of modern Europe, which is an interesting one.

Also, Body of Secrets drags towards the end, too. The last two chapters seemed to be mostly proving that he had walked around inside NSA-land and talked to a bunch of people about things that had largely been secret before. It read like he was paying his sources back for the access they had granted. I think the basic problem is that the details from the late 1990s are still close for Bamford to have worked out the historical importance of what he learned. That’s a real contrast to the parts of the books that cover the period from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Anyway, Bamford’s new bookis about intelligence failures that preceded 9/11 and the misuse of intelligence in the runup to the Iraq war. If he’s still got his good sources, it should be a knockout.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/04/11/slowsilver/

Apr 08 2005

As Trains Go By

The New Republic has published a long review of three novels by Georges Simenon. The thesis is that they are “are superb and polished works of art masquerading as pulp fiction.” Simenon wrote more than 400 novels, under his own name and various pseudonyms.

One of them, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, was published in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s set of great novels from the twentieth century. It’s apparently of a piece with the three reviewed by the New Republic — the reviewer called it “insouciantly gruesome” — and will soon be republished by New York Review Books.

I’ll agree with the insoucance and the gruesomeness, but I’m not sold on the greatness. Each chapter has an odd and cryptic heading — “On the difficulty of getting rid of old newspapers, and the usefulness of a fountain pen and a wristwatch” or “Kees Popinga experiences a remarkable Christmas Eve and, towards morning, selects an automobile.” I had the sense that Simenon wrote the twelve headings and then put the novel together to tie one to the next.

TNR’s reviewer sees books “more philosophically profound than any of the fiction of Camus or Sartre, and far less self-conscious. This is existentialism with a backbone of tempered steel.” Maybe it’s a sign of how both existentialism and Simenon have aged; I just saw a quickie mystery.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/04/08/as-trains-go-by/

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.

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