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.