Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Guermantes Way

I have not been following the “Year of Reading Proust” closely, the group read project to get through the entirety of Remembrance of Things Past aka In Search of Lost Time in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first volume’s publication. However, I was more than ready to dig into the third volume this summer after a few years since reading the second, and I started about the time it looks like the group read was wrapping up.

Starting off Mark Treharne’s translation of The Guermantes Way was very easy, like reencountering an old friend, which is more or less what Proust’s style is once you have gotten so far. When reading In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, I spent some time thinking about the way the length of the text could substitute for multiple rereadings, with each encounter evolving our perception in the way Marcel’s perception of a sonata changes in time—and Proust begins the third volume with a meditation on a similar issue of how perceptions of people change. The people in question are the Guermantes clan, particularly the Duchesse de Guermantes, and the book focuses on taking its time to reveal a series of encounters (or at first non-encounters) with the Duchesse that gradually change Marcel’s perception as a young man from complete idolatry and infatuation to more realism and even a certain jaded skepticism of the Duc, Duchesse, and their restricted social circle.

Early on, when Marcel goes to the theatre and snatches a glimpse of the Duchesse during his days of infatuation, we get a glimpse of where that infatuation will head. The performer that night is La Berma, an opera singer who in the second volume Marcel had idolized from afar but then found extremely disappointing when attending his first performance. Now, hearing her again, he suddenly appreciates her as an artist, but only because he can look at her with more detachment. Likewise, unrealistic expectations will lead first to extreme disappointment with the Duchesse, but then a deeper appreciation of her life and what it means that can realistically see humor in its flaws.

Like the previous volumes, this one is a joy to read, although in this case I would make an exception and say that the short Chapter 1 of Part II, which recounts the death of Marcel’s grandmother, does not work as well as the rest of the book. It is even a little dry, and basically reads as if it is going through the motions before he can get back to the real action. Certainly death can interrupt our ongoing lives in this way, but I’m not sure Proust manages to turn that into an aesthetic opportunity. Beyond that section, because focused so much on social circles this volume is the most conversation-heavy so far. Proust is a master of depicting people wittily through their dialogue, but I must admit I prefer the long passages of reflection to the long conversations.

The novel also brings back Albertine, now suddenly interested in rendezvous with Marcel, and gives the first inkling of what promises to be a very strange relation to M. de Charlus. Given the sadomasochistic qualities of Charlus, I suspect the fourth volume, Sodom and Gomorrah, takes its title in part from evolving this relationship further.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Jokers

I am not sure I think Albert Cossery’s The Jokers (trans. Anna Moschovakis 2010) to be the flash of brilliance suggested by its reception, although it is certainly worth reading. The novel briefly portrays a small group of political activists (they would call themselves precisely not political or activists, but it is politics and activism of another order) who oppose their Middle Eastern government but also eschew revolutionary tactics. They view the world only through an ironic lens where any group that takes power from the current one is likely to be just as bad, and so they seek to undermine those in power by exploding their credibility without really seeking to replace them. So, for example, they begin a letter-writing campaign to newspapers where they praise the governor with more and more outrageous language that gradually turns the politician into an object of humor.

The novel at times embraces this sensibility, but at the same time it reveals moments of weakness in its approach. Karim, Omar, and the rest of the crew hold basically anyone else outside their worldview with contempt, and the price of that contempt comes through as a loss of something basically human. The group is also strikingly misogynistic, seeing women as basically stupid and incompetent, and I am less convinced by the end of the novel that this position is critiqued. Certainly Karim, at least, seems to move away from how he has viewed a particular woman at the beginning, but it is not very clear that his newly found love translates into an actual respect for women.

The end of the novel, an ironic punch line of sorts, strikes me as a bit heavy handed. Still, moments like Karim’s kite flying and Urfy’s encounter with his mother are bright spots that make this worth reading.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Shelves to Read 2013

I'm about a month behind in posting my yearly photo of my "to-read" shelves, a basically superficial but still interesting way to look at what reading I've gotten done, what books I've given up on, and what new titles have enticed me enough to add them.

Reading slower due to work but still steady, and I culled a few things I was never going to read. Still, I've also picked up enough that I haven't made much more headway in my goal to reduce to one shelf of materials waiting to be read.

For previous years: 2012, 2011, 2010.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton is a writer I’ve always wanted to like a little bit more than I do. I have Hermione Lee’s biography of her sitting on a shelf to read sometime, but there is only one of her novels I have really enjoyed: the wickedly satirical Custom of the Country. It is probably that tone I am missing from other of her novels I’ve read, including The House of Mirth and, now, The Age of Innocence (1920).

Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer, a member of 1870s New York’s high society torn between a tradition that makes him comfortable and an artistic and critical bend that leads him to be highly critical of it. Set to marry the nicest of nice girls, his head is turned by an old love interest with a less conventional personality looking for refuse from an abusive husband. To pursue his interest would turn him and her into social outcasts; to get married as planned would be to commit to a life of boredom.

He goes ahead and marries the good girl about half way through, of course.

It is a hard book to get excited about because it is hard to get that invested in Newland’s dilemma. Wharton makes it clear that the bigger victims are the women: May, Newland’s bride, is boring and more or less deprived of interesting thought because she has been made that way (though it should be said she is more insightful than Newland thinks); the Countess Olenska is condemned for living a life that no man would be disparaged for. Newland’s choice is shaped by the same society that shaped their problems, but the impact on him is relatively small due to his privilege as a man. The two women are much more of interest than he is, but he is the focus.

The other key problem with the novel is Wharton’s constant winking at the reader about life in the 1870s verses life in the early twentieth century. We are to be impressed by Newland liking the contemporary authors that turned out to be famous or remembered later, but more heavy handed are the references to new technologies that can’t be believed—or characters thinking how weird potential future technologies sound (which of course exist after the events of the novel). Wharton constantly asks us to chuckle at how new all those things seemed back then even though we now take them for granted. This tendency relates to the lack of drama: the plot tends toward a look back at “how silly we all were” rather than making the issue alive for the present, as if by the 1920s women’s problems were solved. I am pretty sure Wharton did not think so, but the novel comes across that way.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Planets

There is no lack of great literature (and art, film, etc.) that reflects on the dictatorship in Argentina (among those of other countries) from a later time, even to the extent that it has become one of the tributaries of Latin American literature that steadily streams through the narrow channels of translators. Probably there are some people out there already getting a little tired of it and are ready to move on. But Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets (trans. Heather Cleary, 2012) more than rewards anyone who takes it up. It is simply a great novel of the lasting personal effects of a political disaster.

The narrator spends the novel remembering his youth with his friend, M, before M disappeared without warning during the dictatorship--a victim by accident rather than a real political target, as far as anyone can tell. Most of these memories involve the two walking the city’s streets together talking and telling stories. The reflections are prompted by a completely arbitrary event, an explosion that the narrator spontaneously intuits must have killed his friend. This belief is, in its way, every bit as irrational as some of those I found uncompelling in When We Were Orphans, but here the leap in imagination is much easier to make. It is easy to understand the narrator’s belief as simply a desire for closure to a mystery, a product of mental anguish seeking its end (but not, perhaps, entirely succeeding).

Chejfec’s biggest success is in the distinction of the different narrative modes of the novel, which slips between the narrator’s first-person reminiscence, third-person stories told by M and M’s father while they walk the city (some of the best passages in the book), and third-person passages describing M and the narrator, which come across to me as if the narrator were discussing himself from a position of complete alienation.

The first-person narration in the first half of the novel poses the biggest difficulties for reading, partially because it reflects the narrator’s confusion and partially because it reflects a dense, poststructuralist thinking of the world. How much were the narrator and his friend different people, and how much the same person? How is anyone really different from one another, while at the same time having endless distinctions? In their own wanderings and their stories about other people traveling, space offers endless variations but the landscape remains the same, an endless disappointment in the traveler’s desire for difference. The narrator obsesses over similarity and difference, and you could say that one thing the novel does is confuse us over the difference between similarity and difference. A comic version of this appears in a story M’s father tells about a Jewish wedding, where an endless series of men in the story have names that run together, where their roles are distinct and yet they seem like a blur on the page as they build up. Their names are the signs both of their likeness and difference at the same time.

What pervades the novel, though, is a deeply personal grief, born out of specific circumstances and yet deeply recognizable beyond that circumstance—similarity and difference again out of the same signs. It is a grief that turns at times towards terror, paranoia, boredom, and humor, but always on the way back to itself.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Vilnius Poker

I rarely start reading a novel without finishing it. Even if something isn’t all that great I will usually keep going. However, after the first 20 pages of Vilnius Poker by Ričardas Gavelis (trans. Elizabeth Novickas, 2009), I put it down and haven’t looked back for the past two days.

It is a shame because I appreciate the work Open Letter is doing with literature in translation (and this is one of their early books that came out with gorgeously illustrated hardbound covers), but I came to a realization while slogging my way through what I finished that I really don’t have any tolerance left for this kind of narrator. Angry and paranoid, incredibly misogynist. It could be that the narrator has some traumatic past that explains his attitude while not forgiving it, or perhaps he is ironically undercut as the story goes on. I just don’t care. No more.

The good news is that I am already nearly done with another Open Letter title, and it is every bit as beautiful as this is vile. But that will be for next time!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

When We Were Orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) will probably be my last read of his novels unless something comes along that looks irresistible. I enjoyed Remains of the Day when I read it, and Never Let Me Go is a great dystopia, but Orphans makes the third book of his in a row where I have been left underwhelmed and frequently bored.

The novel follows the narrator, Christopher Banks, as he remembers his past growing up in Shanghai before World War I and simultaneously rises to prominence as a detective in England between the wars. He decides to go back to Shanghai to investigate the circumstances of his parents’ disappearance years earlier, an event that sent him back to England to grow up. He is motivated by his own sense, and apparently that of others, that if he returns to Shanghai he will break open the case and, with it, solve the underlying evils leading up to World War II.

Despite the differences in location and social status, the novel retreads thematic terrain from Remains: Ishiguro again points out a general naïveté in the way the narrator and those around him think about world politics. They see the impending war as the rise of an evil that can be easily sorted out by cold investigative rationalism and good diplomacy by the right people, but they really have no idea what they are in for.

The problem with the novel isn’t that Ishiguro revisits these themes (many writers successfully go back to the same issues again and again and keep finding something fresh)—it is that he does it with such a heavy hand. Part of this is a problem of narrator reliability. Ishiguro pushes Banks’s cluelessness a little too far to be believable, and likewise the unreliability of the narrator is performed in too obvious ways. The narrator is meant to be simultaneously over-confident and completely bewildered, admitting his mistakes in memory too easily and performatively to fit his personality. Each section is dated, and the narrator seems to be talking or perhaps writing diary-like entries, but any potential audience, even himself in a diary, would prompt a completely different narrative style. In some first-person narratives this would work—a narrator can sometimes speak in an unrealistic manner but not come across as false—but it doesn’t work here, perhaps because the chapter labels emphasize time and place so much and thus set an expectation for contextual narration rather than something more inventive.

There are other problems: the biggest is an unnecessary failed romance plot that bloats the novel. The ending picks up the pace some, although the resolution is both bizarre and so obviously intended to instill a moral that it too is a bit difficult to endure.

So that is enough Ishiguro for me. On to other writers, hopefully doing more exciting things.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Weight of Temptation

The back cover of the University of Nebraska Press edition of Ana María Shua’s The Weight of Temptation (trans. Andrea G. Labinger, 2012), quotes reviews of the original Spanish that cite it as a critique of the cult of thinness, an Argentinian fat feminism. The summary of the book tries to equivocate on that, and it may be right to do so. For while Shua’s novel certainly expresses some agreement with certain principals of fat feminism—that some people have biological dispositions toward heaviness, that thinness is an abusive ideal—the agreement is somewhat to the side of what seems like the broader point. Because in the end Shua’s novel doesn’t seem that sympathetic with the fat either (except, perhaps, the children), seeming to make a much broader critique of an array of the ways the question of fatness and thinness is always a marker of class privilege, even when taking up the defense of the fat from the ideal of thinness.

The novel focuses on Marina Rubin, whose despair over her inability to stick to a diet and lose weight leads her to join The Reeds, a nightmarish camp that heaps abuse upon the campers as part of the weight-loss program. How abusive? Campers sign a form that allow the staff to take whatever measures necessary as long as a camper doesn’t decide to leave (which carries a stiff financial penalty keeping most from doing so), including having mouths wired shut, electroshock therapy, and, if the head doctor just happens to decide it would be a worthwhile lesson for everyone there, death. The adults are the lucky ones, though: they are there by choice, unlike the children at the camp next door sent there by parents.

Shua certainly has no love for the ideal of thinness that these people are trying to pursue, but the novel is less a dystopia than a satire. Dystopias, by nature, tend more toward an allegorical representation of present problems in order to evoke our horror, but Shua’s novel emphasizes that the events are an extension of present realities, and she evokes not so much horror as disdain. Before Marina enters the camp, she tries one last day of fasting. But quickly she allows herself to make minor concessions—first she decides water and other liquids are ok, then small bits of food, and by the end of the day she is gorging herself—and the experience of the camp is not a whole lot different: the camp is full of repeat visitors who put on the weight again as soon as they leave. The camp, like the fasting diet, involves a promise that drastic action will create immediate effects that will then be maintained by magically developing a moderate regular diet. Both end in a rebellion of gluttony.

Yet, while the book satirizes the ideal of thinness and the culture of weight loss as both unrealistic and unnecessary, it reminds us, persistently, that the whole question is mostly relevant to those well off enough to worry about fat vs. thin and the people from the lower classes they “sponsor” to help—but mostly to feel better about themselves. The sadistic doctor likes berating the campers with the fact that their presence there is itself a distraction from the reality that many around the globe are going hungry, and in the end the novel seems to give that idea more credence than anything else except, again, the way that children become another underclass victimized by their parents’ obsession. Thus Shua’s novel takes a familiar political critique and pushes it into a more unfamiliar territory, and this is what makes the novel so engaging. There are moments where it falters—out of the blue here and there a stale paragraph of dry factoids threatens the momentum—but its strengths make The Weight of Temptation well worth reading.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


Vineland (1990) has been one of the lingering Thomas Pynchon titles I had not gotten around to reading (only one left now: Mason & Dixon), and while it has its strengths it is probably the weakest of his novels I have read except for Inherent Vice. The novel follows, at different points, Zoyd Wheeler, his ex-wife Frenesi, his daughter Prairie, and a few companions as they all try to evade an FBI agent out of control, Brock Vond. In particular, Brock is obsessed with Frenesi, who in the 1960s he had seduced into betraying fellow leftist activists. Prairie also is out to track down her mother, who hasn’t seen her ex-husband and daughter since the latter was a baby.

The novel is at its best when it dives into the past to investigate, through its characters, the fall of 1960s leftist activism and increasing oppression under Nixon and then Reagan. This is, essentially, Frenesi’s story: a long chapter a little over half-way through the book describes her slow fall for Brock Vond and betrayal of a campus protest organization and her own ideals. The problems with the novel come earlier, with Prairie’s search for her mother. Prairie is written in a way that makes you feel like Pynchon is writing a Tom Robbins novel, filled with naïve romanticism and gosh-golly pluck. And you could say the novel is working to undermine that by then portraying Frenesi’s story and deflating Prairie’s naiveté, but something still doesn’t sit right.

The end of the novel has me ambivalent. Complete deus ex machina, it is a little too hard (and frankly boring) to read the long final chapter wrapping up loose ends one by one into a happy ending (with one undercurrent of lurking danger with Prairie to undermine the comfort) without wondering if Pynchon intended this all along or just decided he was tired of the novel and wanted to wrap it up. If intentional, the artificiality of the ending would have packed much more punch if much shorter. Indeed, the whole novel would probably be improved by cutting out large chunks. Usually Pynchon is at his best in his longer novels, but here he would benefit from a good edit.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Distant Star

I decided it was finally time to go back to Roberto Bolaño after a few years: I started this blog with a series of posts on 2666 for a group read, and toward the end asked if anyone had suggestions for where to go next. Really, I had planned to take a break but didn’t think it would be this long before I got to another. Going back to that post and the recommendations now, and looking at the blurbs for a few options, I wound up choosing Distant Star (trans. Chris Andrews, 2004).

This much shorter novel follows the narrator’s experiences before, during, and after the Chilean coup that brought Pinochet to power, focused on his encounters with and 3rd-hand knowledge of Carlos Wieder. Wieder travels in the same poetic circles as the narrator before the coup, then rises to fame as a fascist poet before suddenly disappearing after a show that makes all too apparent the brutality suffered under Pinochet. Wieder is Ezra Pound crossed with a serial killer, his poetry etching Latin across the sky (as in: skywriting) while on the ground he tracks down and murders all the women (but one) associated with the poetry groups he frequented before the war.

The novel, like Bolaño’s other work I would say, is less about the killer than everyone else, all those whose reaction to the dictatorship is to avoid the problem and move to Europe. The narrator, notably, doesn’t even seek out information about Wieder, having it fed to him by a friend who won’t stop writing letters about Wieder and then brought into a search for Wieder by a detective. And yet, he doesn’t really resist these intrusions: he doesn’t want to know, but he does. He just doesn’t want to have to do anything about it.

I found myself engrossed by the first half of the novel, less interested in the second half. I wonder, though, if that is not partially a reaction to the narrator’s increasing distance from the action even when he is involved. The novel gains a lot of momentum from the curiosity spurred by Wieder’s initial indecipherability where his disappearance does not: it is narratively and emotionally anticlimactic, exactly what you want but bringing none of the relief. So perhaps my disenchantment as the novel wore on was part of the point. In any case, Distant Star is short enough to be well worth the read.