Friday, March 27, 2009

The Rainbow

With a title like The Rainbow, what's not to like, right?

D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow was 550 pages. My reaction to the novel for the first 300 pages was the following: terribly boring. Boring in the way that only late 19th/early 20th century novels seem to be able to pull off. I understand that the novels of that time period have their own place in literary history: the beginning of the modern area, a change in narrative style and focus. I’m not criticizing everyone writing during that period – certainly H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker cannot be called boring. But there seems to be a group of these writers that while some people love them, I just find them cumbersome, and Lawrence and (cough cough) Henry James are the most obvious offenders of this time period.

I have only read one other Lawrence work, and that was Sons and Lovers two years ago. When I started The Rainbow, I was trying to remember what I thought of Sons and Lovers, but I remember absolutely nothing about that book. About, oh, 50 pages into The Rainbow, I realized the reason I probably didn’t remember anything from SaL was because it was as boring as The Rainbow.

I found The Rainbow so boring, in fact, that half way through I tried to watch the BBC version hoping it would peak my interest. Maybe something will happen that I can look forward to. I only got through the first two parts, and sent the damn thing back to Netflix. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz as well.

The Rainbow tells the story of three generations of the Brangwen family. First there is Tom Brangwen, and he marries Lydia, a Polish woman. Lydia has a child, Anna, from a previous marriage. Then Anna grows up and marries Will Brangwen – a cousin. Then they have a bunch of kids, and eventually one of them – Ursula – become to focus of the novel. I said above that I found the first 300 pages terribly boring, which pretty much covers the part up to when Ursula, an older teenager, begins an affair with a *ahem* female instructor at her school (Winifred). The next 250 pages, while not being exactly interesting, are at least less dull than the previous 300 pages.

Lawrence has this reputation of being a “pornographer” (as Jeanette Winterson’s mother would have said), and while I haven’t yet gotten to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he stuff isn’t all that scandalous by today’s standards. But it's easy to understand why it would have been seen as indecent in 1915. Not only does Ursula have a clearly sexual relationship with another female, she also has a sexual relationship with her boyfriend, and after they break up for a time she thinks that she might be pregnant (but she isn’t). The more subversive part seems to come from Ursula’s attitudes – she has no interest in ever getting married, she pontificates strangely about religion and doesn’t see the point of war. Some have speculated that part of the reason why this novel was the target for the censors was that Lawrence dared to marry a German woman on the eve of World War I, and then publishes a book in which he questions the British reasoning behind colonialism, patriotism, and armed conflict. It might have been a contributing factor, but I suspect it was the lesbianism that really did it (that chapter - Shame - was singled out by the censors). While Lawrence’s reputation as a pornographer is probably unwarranted, he does write with some semblance of truth about relations between men and women, and to some extent does give women a part in that relation besides housewife and mother. By “some semblance of truth” I mean that for a British man in 1915 to write a novel which is largely centered on women, he didn’t do too bad of a job. But it was still boring.

After finishing the novel, I hopped over to Doug Shaw’s page (a fellow ML Top 100 reader), wondering if he’s reviewed this yet. He hasn’t, but he did review the sequel to The Rainbow, Women in Love, which follows Ursula and her sister Gudrun. And his review made me realize something I hadn’t thought about: Ursula thinks she interesting and special, but she really isn’t. And to make it worse, Lawrence seems to think that Ursula is interesting and special as well. So up until that point, I kind of liked Ursula, but now I see through her – thanks to Doug. And the more I think about it, the more she annoys me. At one point in the novel, one of her friends – Maggie – tells her that she requires everyone to love her (or was that just in the movie? I don’t remember!). But it’s true: she doesn’t seem to be able to stand it unless the people around her simply adore her. Yet her feelings don’t seem to run particularly deep. She says she loves people, but the closest she comes to demonstrating it is not wanting them to be possessed by anybody else…a jealousy over the physical aspect of the relationship and nothing more.

Next year I’ll venture back to Lawrence with Women in Love. But seeing Doug’s review, I fear it will just a repeat of The Rainbow – a very long, tedious novel in which not much happens.


See how much fun rainbows really could be? D.H. are you listening?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Return of Henry James

I look at the first page of The Golden Bowl, and see all those damn commas, and I want to scream. I'm trying to think about it this way: James's most, ah, Jamesian period was his "Old Pretender" phase in which he wrote three novels: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. And this is the only one I haven't read. And I will conquer it. I will not be defeated by you, Henry James. You don't scare me!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Ah, the French

They really know how to stick it to the politicians they don't like:

They put their least favorite book on the bestseller list.

Mr Sarkozy, a man often ridiculed in France for preferring fitness to literature, has frequently expressed his disdain for "La Princesse de Cleves" (The Princess of Cleves), a novel by Madame de La Fayette which was published in 1678 and is taught in most French classrooms.

Now, French readers have adopted the book as a symbol of dissent: as Mr Sarkozy's popularity falls, sales of the book are rising.

At the Paris book fair this week, publishers reported selling all available copies of the novel, while badges emblazoned with the slogan "I am reading La Princesse de Cleves" were a must-have item that sold out within hours....

Over time, his attacks have bolstered the book's popularity, and even given it a new role as a symbol of dissent at a time when public anger over Sarkozy's economic policies is high.

Public readings of the work have proliferated at universities like the Sorbonne in Paris, hit by protests over government reform plans, and at theatres.

The cultural weekly Telerama this week published results of a survey asking 100 French writers to list their 10 favourite books. "La Princesse de Cleves" came third in the overall rankings, after masterpieces by Marcel Proust and James Joyce.

Telerama commented that it was unlikely Madame de La Fayette would have done so well before Sarkozy's jibes.

Oh, to belong to a nation that values literature enough that it can be used as a form of protest. *Sigh* I'm sooo jealous!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Time's Arrow

Working through the 1,001 Books list, I've come up with some gimmicks to get through the list in a slightly more systematic way. Read five books by author's whose last name starts with 'A'; read all the "67" books (meaning, the books at position 67, 167, 267, etc); read one book from each decade, etc. Martin Amis's Time's Arrow showed up on a number of those short lists. And it's a short book, so I thought I'd give it a try.

I've been in sort of a reading slump lately, not really getting excited about the books I've been chosing. Time's Arrow is a noteable exception. The unnamed narrator is living inside Tod Friendly's head. The narrator cannot "hear" Tod's thoughts...but he sees what Tod sees, and can feel his feelings. Likewise, Tod doesn't know that there is someone inside his head. Strange thing is, time is moving backward. We begin when Tod is dying and end when he's born.

Obviously things don't make sense backwards. Tod begins relationships with arguments and bitterness and ends them with happiness. Tod's a doctor, so when people walk into the office (backwards, of course) fine, upbeat, but leave sad, cut, bleeding. The narrator recognizes this doesn't make sense: why do people come to Tod for him to screw them up?

But as we move backward, Tod changes his name a number of times. He is on the run. The narrator knows Tod has done something terrible. Eventually, we see what he has done. Tod's real name is Odilo Unverdorben, and he is a doctor at Auschwitz. But it's only here that things make sense. People are brought back to life...death is sucked out of them. Wounds are healed, rather than created. On the ramps, families are brought together. Odilo and his fellow soldiers help the Jews put their things into suitcases to go back on the railcars to return to home, to safety. Ghettos are liquidated in reverse. Everything is made better, brought from disorder to order.

Time's Arrow is very clever, and it was interesting to see everything moving in reverse...not only because I imagine it took some skill in making everything backwards (including conversations which only made sense when you started at the end of them and to the beginning), but because it turns the Holocaust on its head. It's not a horror, but a healing.

Time's Arrow also marks Book #170 off of the 1,001 list ('06 edition), which I don't think is too shabby.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Amok

I would venture to bet that you have never heard of Stefan Zweig. I hadn't heard of him either until the 1,001 Books list. So you might be surprised that in his heyday ('20s and '30s), he was "arguably the most widely read and translated author in the in the world."

Amok is a 1922 short novella that apparently follows the same pattern or narrative structure as most of Zweig's other works - a frame narrative, in which the narrator encounters the protagonist in a luxurious, cosmopolitan setting, and the protagonist tells the narrator his secrets. Zweig's typical story focuses on intensively examining a single emotion within the context of Austrian bourgeois life. In Amok, we met the narrator, who informs us of a strange incident which occured on a sea passage between the Orient and Europe. The narrator (unnamed) one night cannot sleep and goes on deck, where me meets another passenger, who asks him not to tell anyone that they had met. The next night, the narrator again visits the deck late at night (or early in the morning as the case may be) and finds the protagonist again, who insists on telling the narrator why he is hiding. He had been a doctor in a remote part of a Dutch-occupied Asian country or province. After years surrounded almost exclusively by natives, a white woman comes to visit him, and over the course of her visit it is revealed that she has gotten pregnant (obviously by a man other than her husband) and wants an abortion. In a strange fit, the narrator suddenly in love with the woman, he tells her that he'll perform the abortion if she'll sleep with him. He wants her to beg and plead, or be ashamed of what she is asking for, but she isn't. She laughs in his face and leaves.

Obsessed immediately with the woman, the doctor follows her to town, where he begs to see her, gets himself admitted to a ball she is attending, desparetly trying to reach her. He sends her a letter saying if he doesn't hear from her by the next day, he'll kill himself. Eventually, the woman's servant summons the doctor to the shady part of town, where the woman acquired an abortion by a native woman, and the lady is now dying from the botched operation. The doctor and servant carry the woman home, where she eventually dies. The doctor calls the medical examiner, whom he threatens in order to have him lie on the death certificate claiming she had a heart attack. The woman's husband, who had been away, returns and doesn't believe the story of her death. The doctor had already booked passage on a ship back to Europe, when he discovers that the coffin of the woman, accompained by the husband, are being taken home - probably to be examined. That is why the doctor is hiding - he doesn't want the husband to know he is on board.

Eventually, the ship reaches an Italian port, where most of the passengers go on shore for the day. Upon returning, the narrator learns that a coffin had been being unloaded, when something fell from above and knocked the coffin into the water. The coffin, being made of lead, was unable to be retrieved from the water. A few days later, the body of a man (obviously the doctor) washes ashore. The man had jumped onto the coffin in his final and successful attempt to keep the woman's secret from being discovered.

Everybody who was anybody in the 1920s and 1930s European culture knew Stefan Zweig. Born into a wealthy Austrian-Jewish family, Zweig fled the Nazis in 1934, moving to England, then the U.S., and finally Brazil. He was a novelist and prolific biographer. He wrote librettos, including one for a Richard Strauss opera that was banned after three performances, partly because Strauss refused to remove Zweig's name from it. He was the incarnation of humanism and the bourgeois lifestyle, and I don't mean that in a bad way. He delivered an oratory at Freud's funeral. In the end, Zweig and his wife committed suicide in 1942 by overdosing on Veronal. While by that time the tide had begun to turn for Nazi Germany - there was no longer the assumption that they would win - Zweig knew that the life he had loved in Vienna and the things that he loved about it was over: internationalism, intellectualism, humanism would fall prey to the increasingly politicized world. Artists killing themselves is typically a sure-fire way to get yourself remembered. Not in Zweig's case. In the years that followed, he was quickly forgotten. While he to some extent continued to be read in Europe, his works are virtually unknown - and until recently untranslated - in the English world.

In the last few years Zweig has been making a come back from the land of the lost. His works are increasingly being translated into English, increasingly being read. Amok was short, face paced, and interesting. Everything a good story should be. There wasn't anything particularly novel about it, anything spectacular, but not everything needs to be spectaguclar in order to be enjoyed, and I did enjoy it.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Fatelessness

"In the strengthening light, on the narrower gable end of the building, facing the direction in which we were traveling, on the surface below the roof, I could in fact make out two words: "Auschwitz-Birkenau" was what I read, written in spiky, curlicued Gothic lettering, joined by one of those wavy double hyphens of theirs." ~Fatelessness

Imre Kertesz's Fatelessness (previously published as Fateless) is the story of Gyuri, a 14-year-old ethnically (but not religiously) Jewish Hungarian boy. The novel opens on the day before his father is ordered to leave for a work camp. Shortly thereafter, the boy gets a job outside of town at a factory. One day, while on his way to work, his bus is stopped, he and his fellow workers are taken off and eventually loaded onto rail cars and sent to Auschwitz. Probably fortunately for our narrator, he is shortly thereafter removed to Buchenwald and then to a work camp, Zeitz. While there, he develops a knee injury that puts him in the sick bay where his injury is operated on. He soon develops another injury - this time to his hip - while in the hospital. Eventually he is transferred back to Buchenwald, where he remains until the camp is liberated in spring 1945. After liberation, he returns to Budapest.

The power of these stories is typically not in the actual events that happen. It's the small occurrences as opposed to the plot. The one or two people who go out of their way to help someone, to share a piece of bread. There is the time when he is in the hospital and his bunk mate died in the night...he didn't tell anyone (and no one noticed) for a few days in order to get extra food rations. And when he returns home, everything is only vaguely the same. He goes to his parents house, hoping to find his stepmother, only to learn she had moved. If it hadn't been that a neighbor recognized him, he would potentially have been completely lost. He runs into people who want him to tell everything, to expose everything, and those who want him to put everything behind him - to forget and start over. But how could you forget? And how could you possibly explain to anyone what this experience really was like?

Fatelessness is advertised as being, "surpassed only by Primo Levi's Surival at Auschwitz." Now Levi's book is frickin' amazing in terms of this genre (my review here), and I'm not sure I would put Fatelessness there. There were certain grammatical and stylistic elements that annoyed me, particularly in the beginning. I'm not sure, but I would be willing to blame this on the translation from its original Hungarian. At times I noticed tense changes from past to present; phrases such as "During these days too" was repeated multiple times in the same paragraph; at times the word choice seemed strange. By about half way through the novel these things seemed to disappear...or maybe I just stopped noticing them.

I was also very confused for a long time about whether or not the narrator was Jewish. He wears a yellow star, but there is a scene where a meal is served and his uncle refuses to eat because it contains pork, and his "faith forbids it." Once he arrives in the camp, he states, "I made the surprising discovery that Jews evidently don't only speak Hebrew, as I had supposed up till now." He is poked fun at because he can't speak either language - You're not a Jew, the "real" Jews say to them. It wasn't until this point that I realized what was going on...he was condemned because he was "racially" Jewish...and this is perhaps the first book I've read about someone in this particular situation. Someone who doesn't view himself as Jewish at all, and yet is lumped in with them because his family once was.

I found there were a lot of parallels to Levi's excellent work. The one that struck me immediately was the description of the shoes the prisoners were forced to wear. Until I read Survival at Auschwitz, I had never thought about it. You see the Allied pictures from the end of the war, when they liberated the camps, and you don't really notice the shoes. But those shoes just made everything worse. To have to walk all over the place, in those scraggly uniforms, hungry, unprotected from the elements, and then to have to deal with those shoes. It's strange how such a mundane detail such as that not only has shown up in now two of the Holocaust novels/memoirs that I've read, but that the detail has resonated with me.

I suppose the amazing parallel between the two works was the fact that these two people probably only survived at all because they were in the sick bay when their camps were evacuated prior to the Allied arrivals. Had they been healthy...had they not been where they were, the works of both of these men would never have existed. And it is amazing in that is not only that small twist of fate saved these two men, but what is equally tragic is the number of other works of art that were destroyed before they had a chance to be created by people who were not as "lucky" as Kertesz, Levi, and also Weisel (though he did go on the forced march) and others.

Fatelessness wasn't Survival at Auschwitz, which I couldn't recommend enough for people also interested in the subject, but it was good in its own right. There is a movie version (though I've read it is more based on Kertesz experience than the fictionalized version in Fatelessness) and I hope to get it this week through netflix. Expect a post on that next week.


Friday, March 6, 2009

Dance Update

I know I’ve been fairly quiet on here lately…pretty much this year so far. Sometimes I feel bad about that – like it’s my duty as a blogger to finish books quicker, or to post more often. But everything seems to get in the way. Work is terribly busy, and probably will be all year. Additionally, my personal life is keeping me equally distracted from reading. But I’m REALLY trying.

So, to tide everyone over until I finish a book, I’ll give my Dance to the Music of Time update.

I don’t think I’ve given an update since I finished the 3rd movement back in August. The third movement focused on World War II. The characters being all proper, upper class Brits, they didn’t really do much. Nick enlisted but ended up working with the foreign officials in London, and Widmerpool ended a Colonel (if I remember correctly). There wasn’t any real “going to war” as in nobody was marching across Europe as a foot soldier. Many people died: Nick’s sister-in-law and her estranged husband in a bombing; Stringham in Asia; Templer was murdered in Egypt. All of that takes place outside of the narrative…Nick is just relaying what’s going on, what people have told him, what people are talking about. Such as: Widmerpool's new wife insinuates that he had Templer murdered...and Templer just happened to be her most recent ex-boyfriend. All the British military jargon bogged the whole thing down for me, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. It was probably my least favorite of the movements. I know I went on and on about how I hated the first movement, but I think it just took the first 750+ pages to get used to what was going on…to get used to the narrative style, and to accept that Nick’s not going to tell us anything about himself. I think if I went back and reread the first part now, I would enjoy it more.

I’m nearing the end now of it…I’m still more than 500 pages away, but that’s more than 80% of the way. The fourth movement is focusing on those Nick runs into in his career mostly, with the usual characters still hanging around…Quiggin, Members, Widmerpool as always. It’s ok…but I really miss the party-going of the 2nd movement. Nick’s older now, everybody is more settled in.

This book – which I’ve been reading now for almost a year and a half – has become integrated into my life. I read my 10 pages every night, and Shawn will ask, “How is Winterpool doing?” and I say, “Well, his wife just left him.” One night I dreamed that Pamela didn’t really throw all of Trapnel’s manuscript in the canal…just a few pages. She hid the rest in my back yard. I guess these things really do begin to sink in after a while. I don’t know what I’ll do without them…I don’t know what I’ll do when in two months we finally say goodbye – maybe for good, maybe not. I don’t know that I’ll miss Widmerpool though.

Monday, March 2, 2009

John Cheever

A great article on John Cheever at the New York Times. When I read his Wapshot Chronicle last year, I didn't realize how famous he had once been, and how non-famous he is now. He was an extremely popular and prolific short story writer, and when he forayed into novel writing, he was only successful when he made his own model of what a "novel" is.

Like many authors, Cheever appears to have had a very interesting life - he was an alcoholic, a closeted homosexual (not closeted anymore!) who maintained a "conventional" - to the outside maybe - straight marriage and sired three children. I'm not someone who thinks that an author's bio always illuminates his/her fiction, but it seems to be true in Cheever's case.