A Book, Read – #9/2016 – Kundera, Milan – The Festival of Ignorance

 

When I was very young and just beginning to turn to serious literature I fell, somehow, into the embrace of Milan Kundera’s work, and specifically his early writing.  Kundera, along with Pynchon, Joyce, García Márquez and (Phillip) Roth, were my early touchstone writers, the writers who encouraged me to leave behind fantasy literature and try something different.  I read five or six Kundera books within the space of a few months, and then – and then –

Years passed.  I didn’t read him at all.  I read the others, more or less, but never Kundera.  And then, every year or so, I’d read one book of his, just one, often a slim one, and I’d like it, but I was never encouraged to go back and read his larger works.  I’ve read The Unbearable Lightness of Being only twice.  I’ve read Immortality once, and I know I’ll never read it again.  His novellas I have read a couple of times.

And then a few more years pass, Kundera turns 80, the years grind on, and The Festival of Ignorance arrives.  I didn’t buy it.  I borrowed it from the library early this year, and read it in about an hour.  It’s short, the text is very large, and it’s light – even for Kundera.  Old men wander around looking at younger women, and the absurdity of human sexuality is examined through a slight refraction of Cold War sensibilities.  It’s very Kundera.  It’s very of it’s time (read: 40 years ago).  It was published in recent times.

It’s a bit of an oddity.  I am not particularly interested in recommending it, but it’s not bad.  I liked it, but I have forgotten most everything about it.  The themes are examined in more detail and with greater sensitivity, understanding and humour in his other novels.  But it’s a nice little thing, and acts as a fine capstone to a long and worthwhile career.  And if there’s another novel knocking about in Kundera’s mind that we still might see before he passes away?  Well, great!

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #8/2016 – Auster, Paul – Sunset Park

 

I have probably mentioned this before, but there are writers I like to read when I am lost from literature and nothing is appealing.  They are not the writers closest to my heart (Bolaño, Camus, Proust, Borges, Bellow), and nor are they the difficult writers I admire (Gaddis, Joyce, Pynchon, Lobo Antunes, Perec).  Instead these writers are the ones who have carved out a very particular space for themselves, who write at a consistently high quality, and who, for lack of a better term, make me feel good about literature.  I like them, but I don’t love them.  I am excited by their works, but it’s excitement of the head, never the heart.

Coetzee is one.  Kundera is one.  Tavares is one.   Flaubert is one.  Tolstoy, if his books were shorter, would be one, too.

Paul Auster is one.

I have read a lot of Paul Auster at this stage.  There are a few books left, but most of it has been read by me.  I have enjoyed each book, and read most of them multiple times, but, as noted above, my heart is never quite set to racing.  Sunset Park is no different in this respect.  For me, it’s minor Auster, which still means very good, but I think that it will not be a book I return to when I want a cool glass of literature.  That will instead be, say, Mr Vertigo, or  The Music of Chance.

So, Sunset Park is about a young man who is drifting through life.  He falls into a relationship.  Things happens, perspectives shift, details are analysed, summaries are provided.  It’s Auster.  It’s good!  But I wouldn’t, I know, recommend it to anyone as such.  Not this one.  His other books – yes.  He has two memoirs about his father, and both are sad, touching and complete (even if we admit that no biography of anyone else can ever be complete).

To summarise an Auster novel is to miss the point.  The book is filled with melancholy yearnings, its characters have their obsessions, and the author intrudes to let in on his, too.  And I read it and it was good, and after reading it I felt more enamoured with literature than I had been in a little while.  Thanks, Mr Auster.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #7/2016 – Hobb, Robin – Fool’s Quest

 

You can never go home.  If there’s one thing that entering your thirties makes you aware of, it is this.  Nostalgia has its place and its purpose, but you can never go home, and you should never try.  Leave the toys of youth where they belong, packed away.  Remember them fondly, but don’t blow off the dust and use them again.

This has been true of writers I once cared for – David Gemmell, Robin Hobb, Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, George R R Martin.  I outgrew them.  Or grew sideways.  Or moved on.  However you want to put it, that kind of literature is no longer for me.  But I kept going back to it, to see if perhaps I could love those books again.  And each time, no.  Not for me.

I had this experience with Robin Hobb’s initial trilogy, The Farseer Trilogy, concerning her most beloved characters, the Fitz and the Fool.  I went home, and I shouldn’t have.  So why, then, in 2016, have I chosen to open up the third trilogy involving these characters, books for which I have no fondness of memory (I have never read them) and which I have no real hope of enjoying?

I don’t know.  And thus it was that I read over 700 pages of the second book, all the while wondering why.  There’s nothing wrong with the book (oh, it’s boring, nothing happens, it’s ridiculously padded out, there is little action, poor characterisation, bizarre plotting, and workmanlike sentences), but it’s really not for me.  I never rolled my eyes (I save that for Goodkind and Jordan), but I was never moved to anything other than boredom.  Or perhaps admiration that an individual is able to churn these things out, year after year.  That speaks to a certain honing of one’s craft.

The next few books I read were very different, and the jump in quality was so extreme that it kind of makes me think I should intersperse cheesy fantasy novels amongst the serious literature I prefer to read, just to appreciate them even more.  But that way lies madness, right?

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #6/2016 – Auster, Paul – Leviathan

 

There are books I read when I am excited.  Books I read when I want to feel sad.  Books I read when I need to read a masterpiece.  Books I read when I want to connect with everything.  Books I read when I want something that is entirely different to anything I, myself, will write.  Books I read for comfort.  Books I read for violence and anger.  Books I read because they are different.  Books I read because they are set in Paris.  Books I read because they have that ineffable Spanish language quality.  Books I read to understand Russians.  Books I read to understand horror.  Books I read to know I will never understand the Holocaust, the GULAG, concentration camps, firebombing, torture.

And then there are books I like to read when I just want a cool glass of water.  I have mentioned this before – Coetzee is such a writer.  Kundera is.  Auster is, too.  So, as the March doldrums approached, I opened Auster’s Leviathan.  A cool glass of water.

Auster is extremely talented when it comes to setting up problems for his characters.  Invariably, his protagonists are bookish, intelligent men, often New Yorkers, generally failures.  And they are held under the sway of a friend, a mentor, an acquaintance – someone whose life is bigger than their own.  More important.  Certainly more enigmatic.

Where he falls down is, the problems he creates for his characters are often metaphysical in nature, philosophical problems that have no real (or no appealing) solution, and so his climaxes rarely are.

I had a lot of trouble understanding Leviathan.  Again and again, interesting situations arose, but they fizzled, always, to nothing, and the characters consistently made puzzling choices which resulted in odd zig-zags of plot.  Was this the purpose?  I don’t know – I don’t think so.

Bookish men.  New Yorkers.  A future we are told about in the first few pages.  A past we are lectured on over the next fifty.  The present collides with the future we know, but it gets there in an odd way.  And, somehow, terrorism comes into it.  But it doesn’t, not really, and that’s the book.

I like every sentence Auster writes.  I dislike, generally, his books in their entirety.  I love the promises he makes.  I am disappointed that he never sticks to them. What to make of such a writer?  The first 100 pages of any Auster novel sets my mind aflame with the possibility of literature.  The remaining pages, however many they are, get the job done.

Infuriating.

But the water is cool, and tastes good, and I am satisfied.  For now.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #5/2016 – García Márquez, Gabriel – News of a Kidnapping

 

Well, I never got around to reading a book by Sartre. But I suppose I will.

Instead, I used a different tactic to choose my next book.  I have something of decision paralysis when it comes to what I will read next, and this is mostly due to the fact that I have too many books.  Far too many.  It’s a nice problem to have, but nonetheless it leads to me either not reading, or rereading.

At any rate, a few days back I decided to life up a notebook that I had placed on a stack of books, and read the top book on the stack.  And that was García Márquez’ News of a Kidnapping.  And so, I read it.

I read, and was briefly obsessed with, both Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude.  This would have been back in 2004-05.  And then I kind of fell away from García Márquez, and I never really went back.  I read a novella here or there over the years, but I didn’t really like them, and that, for me, justified not going back to either of his big novels, or any new, meaty works of his that remained unread.  But I owned them, and they have been hanging about.

News of Kidnapping comes from interviews, diaries, newspaper articles, etc, relating to kidnappings in Colombia conducted under the watchful eye of Pablo Escobar.  The material was source by García Márquez over the years and thus the book is effectively a novelistic examination of this heady time.

It’s largely told from the perspective of the men and women who were kidnapped, and their immediate families, the majority of whom were influential in politics and journalism.  I was and am largely unfamiliar with Colombian history, but I have, of course, heard of Pablo Escobar.  This was a sufficient hook to bring me into the book.

But it turns out I didn’t really need that.  García Márquez has a sensitivity to the feelings and thoughts of strong-minded men and woman, and he is able to convey that effectively here.  These people were all important and influential during this time, and, for those kidnapped in particular, the shock to the system to find that they can have their lives overturned, is handled rather well.  The times nearing the end of the book when the captured and their families are reunited are so euphoric for the return and sad for the months lost that I read them, without shying away from this truth, with a lump in my throat.  It was powerful writing.

Less effective – and this could be because I am not very familiar with Colombia or its history – are the final thirty or so pages where the intricacies of Escobar’s surrender are detailed.  García Márquez was writing for an audience who would no doubt be aware of what happened next in this story, and while I was vaguely of the impression that he eventually left prison and was shot to death while running along rooftops, that’s really the entirety of my knowledge.  Consequently the book runs the risk of losing readers who aren’t as familiar with Escobar or Colombia, and as the years progress, that number will grow (To test this – ask a twenty year old if they know who Escobar is.  I suspect they won’t).

But I liked it!  And it chipped away at my reluctance to return to García Márquez’s writing.  I knew and have known for a long time that my reluctance was entirely a problem of my own making, and had no real grounding in García Márquez’s stature, importance or quality of writing.  But for whatever reason the problem grew and grew, and now, I think, it’s gone.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Abandoned – #1/2016 – Eco, Umberto – The Prague Cemetery

 

What do you do with the man who has just died?

I came to Umberto Eco early in my reading life.  I was 21 or 22 when I first read Foucault’s Pendulum, and it was, then, for me, revelatory.  I hadn’t read a book like it – erudite, historically aware, energetic, humorous, obsessive, conspiratorial, laid-back.  It was both a rollicking story and a deep exploration into European history.  It was dramatically unlike the other kinds of books I had read at the time.

And then time passed, and I read a book or two of Eco’s, but nothing grabbed me.  I was fine with The Name of the Rose, but I hated Baudolino, and his essay collection, How to Travel with a Salmon was pleasant and fine, but nothing.  I read Foucault’s Pendulum again a few years later and enjoyed it for nostalgia’s sake.

All of this is to say that Eco meant something to me when I was young, and then my literary tastes diverged sufficiently when I was older that I no longer had a connection to his work.  I can appreciate his many strengths – his intelligence, his immense erudition, his extreme understanding and appreciation of European history – but for whatever reason the sum of these parts (and his other qualities) added up to a whole that I was not particular interested in.  See also: Salman Rushdie.

So when I heard about his death on Sunday I was sad, because he was an important writer to my youthful self.  And so I began The Prague Cemetery, and I shall be honest – the first one hundred pages was a blur of names, dates, occurrences, events.  Nothing stuck.  Nothing coalesced.  I kept on – still the same.

I abandoned the book 260 pages in.  Of around 600 pages for the edition I own.  Almost halfway.  I don’t know.  I was ready to sink my teeth into an immense European romp through the 19th century, with a bit of conspiracy, a bit of mystery, a bit of murder.  And that was all there, but it signified nothing, and it never went anywhere.

I’m sad Eco died.  I really did admire his writing.  But I can’t continue the book.  It isn’t holding on to its ideas sufficiently for me to want to travel along with it.  There’s too much of things that don’t matter too me – too many references to Eugène Sue but not enough writing like Eugène Sue.  Too many references to real characters but not enough weight.  Too many hate filled comments towards Jews without a commensurate pay-off.  So…. so what?  I can’t do it, and I won’t, and the book is abandoned, and here we are.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #4/2016 – de Beauvoir, Simone

 

A couple of years ago I lived with my sister.  At the time, she had a book club with some friends, and the little group included my fiancée.  One of the nights, the book club was held at my sister’s place, and for whatever reason my fiancée wasn’t there.  So, I was in my room and could vaguely hear the other girls discussing the book they had read – it may have been The Lovely Bones, but I don’t really remember.

At any rate, the conversation turned away from the book itself, and began to range more widely, touching on various expected themes – life, partners, children, hobbies, work.  The usual.  And then the girls started to discuss feminism.  They all professed to be feminists, but after a while they began to admit that they didn’t really have a good definition of what it meant to be a feminist, and what they were “allowed” to do.

After a while, I went into the lounge room and handed around a book I have, but hadn’t yet read – Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.  I spoke about what (very) little I knew about it and the writer, and then left them to it.  I believe one of my sister’s friends took the book that night, and may still have it.

All this is by way of introducing The Woman Destroyed, which is a work of fiction by de Beauvoir.  I bought it on a whim one day, entirely because I knew of The Second Sex, and because I was familiar enough with Jean-Paul Sartre’s work.

Today I read the book.  It is split into three parts, each of which utilise a different literary method for exploring the way in which a woman is capable of being “destroyed” – be it intellectually, romantically, sexually, or her sense of self.  In some instances, the destruction comes from within, and in others, it is from outside.  That is, the first part concerns itself with a woman who is slipping intellectually, who has wasted three years of her life writing a book which, she later learns, she has really written before, and better – she has come to the terminal point of her intellectual career well before she is ready or wishes to.  The third part shows how one woman is annihilated by the casual disregard with which she is treated by her husband when he begins to have an affair.  And so on.

The women in these books moan their fate, of course, but they also take ownership of what they perceive to be fairly their share of what has occurred.  In each part, this is obviously a greater or lesser share of the ‘destruction’, but the point here is that de Beauvoir was concerned with a woman’s sense of autonomy both in areas she had control over, and in those she did not.  How you behave when things are bad, or out of your control, is indicative of your character, and a woman has as much a prerogative as a man to behave according to the moral and ethical structure they have amassed for themselves.

And, really, overall now I wish I still had The Second Sex, and I was very impressed with what I read, and I would like to read more.  Instead, because I am quite sure I do not have any other books by de Beauvoir, I suppose I will read something by Sartre…

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #3/2016 – Alexievich, Svetlana – Zinky Boys

 

I finished Zinky Boys a few days ago but I was unsure what I thought about it and I wanted to better process what I had read.  It’s Sunday morning, it’s sunny, my little dog lies underneath my chair, and I think perhaps I am able to understand the book I have read.

Soviet Russia fought a war with Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.  I don’t know much about it.  I was too young during that period, and on top of that, Russian news doesn’t really hit the Australian airwaves much, unless it is to make fun of Vladimir Putin.  Russia is a big, important country, and Soviet Russia was even more important, but it doesn’t register much over here.  I suspect Australia is virtually never mentioned in Russian media.

All this is to say that I came into the book blind.  Alexievich composes her books by conducting interviews with people and then massaging it into a collection of first person recollections and memories.  In this book – I have not read any of her other works – the people telling their stories are de-identified.  Which means we have “A Widow”, “A Mother”, “A Doctor”, “Private, Gunlayer”.  They tell their story, whatever it may be, and as the book progresses it becomes clear what the war was, and what it wasn’t.

It wasn’t a just way, or a pretty war.  Of course war is never pretty, but the popular understanding and memory of a war can make it seem glorious after the fact.  World War II is very much an instance of this – the Allies are proud of their achievements, and hold their victory up to the world as a moral success (let’s put aside the controversy and complexity of the war).  The Soviet War with Afghanistan, however, was mired in murkiness from the start.  Soldiers talk of how they were only allowed to mention very specific things to people back home, and often they were encouraged to make things up – everything is going well!  We are helping the people rebuild!  Nobody dies!

But this was not true.  The war was vicious, and ground up soldiers like mincemeat.  The widows, and the mothers grieving dead children, are of course upset and traumatised, but so too are the soldiers, and the nurses, and the medics.  One comment from a soldier is striking – he recounts how he was the best at throwing grenades, and the sharpest shot, but neither of those skills are of any use back home in Russia.  He doesn’t know what to do with himself, because all he is good at is killing.

This is a difficult book because it is effectively 180 pages of sorrow, violence, tragedy and betrayal.  The small moments of levity or lightness are provided solely when mothers recall fondly how kind their little sons were as children, or when wives remember the sensitivities of their husbands.  But in both instances, they are talking of the dead.

This is not a long book, and nor is it particularly complex in structure or syntax.  Primarily, the stories told are in the words of the people telling them, which means there is a lot of slang, and the tone remains conversational throughout.  The challenge – and it is a challenge – is that of facing horror and violence, page after page.  My time with the book was stretched out longer than I thought it would be, as I could only easily read three or four stories before I needed a break.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #2/2016 – Wood, James – How Fiction Works

 

There are some writers I turn to when I am unsure what to read and want to experience clear, concise, high quality prose.  I don’t want torrential writing, and I don’t want cheeseburger writing.  I don’t want to be overwhelmed with genius, or underwhelmed with fantasy tropes or genre conceits.  The writers I turn to in these instances are Coetzee, Auster, Kundera, Aira.  There are others – those just fell from my mind to my fingers.  I like them, I admire their writing, and could only hope one day to write something approaching their level.  But, for me, they aren’t Permanent Writers.  They are a cool drink of water.

And sometimes that is what I need.  Not lately, though.  I tried – oh yes.  But it didn’t quite work.  And so I turn to James Wood’s How Fiction Works, a book which, more or less, explains effective plotting, characterisation, narrative, detail, consciousness, language, dialogue.  As according to Mr Wood.

If you do not hew closely to Wood’s touchstone writers, then the book is good, but excessively preachy and prescriptive.  If you love Flaubert, Conrad, Lawrence, Henry Green, Saul Bellow, then you are fine.  If you don’t, then the book is somewhat problematic.

I have a lot of time for Wood’s theories, and while I don’t think free indirect style is the greatest offering literature can make to the world, there’s something to what he says.  The concept of a third person narrator who is able to be “infected” by the force and personality of the characters is quite something, and if anyone is interested in reading wonderful and clear examples of this, then please, read Bellow – anything, but Herzog or Seize the Day or Mr. Sammler’s Planet would be the best examples.  Bellow is a tremendous, epochal writer, and his best books have held up for decades now.

But what of the other kinds of writing?  They exist, and they are true and good.  Woods knows it, and recognises various other writers, but really, he is about free indirect style.  So, this book is not “How Fiction Works” but “How Free Indirect Style Works”.  And that’s fine.

He is exceptionally readable, and very pleasant company to keep on a quiet afternoon.  His passion for literature is true, and clear, and encouraging, and he makes you want to read more, and think more, and pay attention to everything.

I read Woods because I wanted to read about reading, and it worked perfectly.  I don’t say this to dismiss him as a read-when-you-need-invigorating-but-otherwise-don’t-bother kind of writer, but he helped me in this time, and I am thankful for that.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #1/2016 – Hobb, Robin – Fool’s Assassin

 

I have mentioned I have had some trouble this year beginning my reading proper.  Partially this is because I went on an amazing holiday from ~14 December 2015 to ~16 January 2016 and also, admittedly, because I have been in something of a reading funk.  I am very good at creating reading plans, and much less skilled at sticking to them.

So, after almost the entire month of reading spurts of books, but not completing any, I decided to dip into the fantasy genre, to kind of kick-start my reading, with the intention that something I knew I would enjoy on a purely pleasurable level would be what I needed to really get back into reading.

And so I chose Robin Hobb’s new trilogy.  I have read the previous two trilogies, and the first trilogy, which I have in my bookshelves, remains a trilogy of fantasy books I can actually enjoy into the present.  I don’t really like or dislike the second trilogy – it’s fine – but the first holds sentimental value to me and, surprisingly, also captures well, I think, the competing ties of friendship, family and loyalty that a young person experiences as they mature and age.

Now, Fool’s Assassin concerns a middle-aged Fitz, and it is the seventh book in this trilogy of trilogies, so there is both a lot of baggage attached to the series, and to the character.  And, I found, Hobb can’t quite deal with a mature character as well as she can someone young.  This was beginning to become evident in the second trilogy, but there it’s quite striking.  Reading about a 50ish man bumbling and over-feeling his way through events is a bit much.  And everyone keeping secrets to themselves when they could just have a conversation and and resolve plots points is also a bit much.  And the convolutions of it all is a bit much.

But and but and but.  When Fitz and the Fool, in the last 80 pages, come together again – ah, my youth!  It came back to me, and I raced through the pages.  I savoured the plot.  And I am not a plot person.  But there it was.  So, really, for the first 500 pages, I was not going to bother with the second book (which has been published), or the third (which has not – yet).  With the Fool back, well – well!  I don’t know.

But I’m reading again, and that’s nice, too.  I also starting an Adorno book, Minima Moralia, which, really, coming off this book is a bit heavy.  But I’m back.  And that’s the big thing.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.