I’m way behind on my Camus. The Stranger (1942) is the first one I’ve read. Right alongside this ignorance is the fact that I know nothing about Camus, other than the general knowledge that he was an existentialist (thought he disputes this – and who’s word are we going to take?) and that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957. A quick jaunt to Wikipedia revealed to me that he worked to oppose nihilism. There I also read this interesting quote: ”I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.” This notion (though I don’t fully understand it), in a sense, introduces some the ideas in The Stranger. Rather than choose this book for its ideas, however, I mainly chose it as my first venture into Camus because it is short and sweet – well, maybe not too sweet, as it turns out.
The version I read was translated by Matthew Ward who offers an interesting introduction as to why he would change some of the most famous lines in literature. For example, he changes the famous first line “Mother died today.” However, I agree with his choice: “Maman died today.” It’s a simple change, but one that I think very much changes the reading. Ward notes that Camus wrote that “the curious feeling the son has for his mother constitutes all his sensibility.” Fitting, then, that the first word in this book would be “maman,” which brings to me a totally different feel than “mother.” Therefore, though I have no credentials, I endorse this translation. It seems Ward has made conscious changes to other English translations and his changes are informed by his studies of Camus’s other writings. It is too bad that Ward died in 1990, just a year after completing this translation. It would be interesting, had he been able to continue translating, to see if his works took on the status of Seamus Heany’s translation of Beowulf, Robert Fagles’s of The Odyssey, and Pevear and Volokhonsky’s of Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov. (I hope these thoughts bring up discussions of translations, particularly of French translation, since that is where we are in this post.)
I find it somewhat interesting that I chose to start this review about the translation rather than about the actual story. In many ways, I guess, that was where my interest lay while reading The Stranger. L’etranger is one Mersault, a man so honest about his seeming apathy that he does not fit into society, hence the title and the reason it is sometimes translated as “The Outsider,” since etranger also signifies a foreigner or outsider and not necessarily someone who is unknown.
An example of this seeming apathy is found in the early pages when Mersault attends his mother’s funeral but chooses to smoke and drink coffee by the coffin and doesn’t seem to show much emotion. All of this will come back to haunt him later, though he doesn’t really care even at that point. I say “seeming” apathy because something else is going on here. First, there is the first word in the book – maman – and all it signifies about Mersault’s relationship with his mother. But also Mersault’s actions are not necessarily derived from apathy. Rather, he is simply being honest about how he wants to act. Does he want to look at his dead mother in her coffin? No. And it does not follow that that is because he doesn’t care for her. Does he want to drink coffee and smoke while there? Yes. So he does. All the same, Mersault’s vibe of being unfeeling has a whiff of truth to it.
Which is why I am so interested in the translation. Ward pulls off a translation that is at once touchingly intimate and detached and disinterested. I cannot compare this to other translations, but, as I said earlier, I very much think this one is worth the read. For example, the first few paragraphs:
Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.
The old people’s home is at Marengo, about eighty kilometers from Algiers, I’ll take the two o’clock bus and get there in the afternoon. That way I can be there for the vigil and come back tomorrow night. I asked my boss for two days off and there was no way he was going to refuse me with an excuse like that. But he wasn’t too happy about it. I even said, “It’s not my fault.” He didn’t say anything. Then I thought I shouldn’t have anything to apologize for. He’s the one who should have offered his condolences. But he probably will day after tomorrow, when he sees I’m in mourning. For now, it’s almost as if Maman weren’t dead. After the funeral, though, the case will be closed, and everything will have a more official feel to it.
After a series of arbitrary events, Mersault winds up in prison for the murder of an Arab man. Getting to this murder is part of the fun of the novel, so I don’t want to spoil it by connecting the dots. During his prosecution, Mersault is accused of being heartless and uncaring. Much of the evidence against him is derived from his actions at his mother’s funeral. Indeed, it seems he is more on trial for this than for the murder of the Arab.
It’s a fascinating book. But that didn’t make it a great book for me, I’m afraid. I think some of it comes from the tendency of absurdists (and existentialist) books to begin to sound like one another. The ideas in them ring both true and false to me, but they generally toll in the same note. So the pleasures of this book were the poetry, the atmosphere, and the structure of the novel. Another reason, perhaps, why I was almost more interested in talking here about the translator than about the novel itself. Ward definitely succeeded in helping me appreciate what Camus could do with language.
Which brings me to the end of the book. Watch this potential spoiler, but I cannot resist posting the last lines, which I think are amazing:
As if blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself – so like a brother, really – I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.
I’m planning on working through Yates’s work in order of publication, so the second book on the docket is Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), his book of short stories written mostly in the 50s before Revolutionary Road was published. You may have seen on my post for Revolutionary Road some caution against reading his books too close together. I feel that that is a good idea; however, I am glad I read these stories closely after reading Revolutionary Road. It’s possible I would have enjoyed them more for literary reasons had I not been comparing them to Revolutionary Road – a truly marvelous book – but I really enjoyed seeing how Yates the writer developed during this decade. And I did enjoy them for literary reasons too.
To start things off, here is the list of stories. As you could probably tell from the title, there are eleven:
- Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern (1954)
- The Best of Everything (1952)
- Jody Rolled the Bones (1952)
- No Pain Whatsoever (1951)
- A Glutton for Punishment (1953)
- A Wrestler with Sharks (1954)
- Fun with a Stranger (1952)
- The B.A.R. Man (1954)
- A Really Good Jazz Piano (1951-58)
- Out with the Old (1953-57)
- Builders (1961)
You also probably gleaned from the title that all eleven have to do with loneliness. Indeed, though the stories themselves vary in perspective, theme, place, etc., all are focused on individual loneliness. As in Revolutionary Road, however, the individuals – while not blameless – are victims of circumstance.
Two of my favorites in the book were “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” and “Fun with a Stranger.” Both stories take place in a school and show the potentially devestating relationship between a teacher and her students.
In “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern,” a young teacher is confronted with a true challenge:
All Miss Price had been told about the new boy was that he’d spent most of his life in some kind of orphanage, and that the gray-haired “aunt and uncle” with whom he now lived were really foster parents, paid by the Welfare Department of the City of New York. A less dedicated or less imaginative teacher might have pressed for more details, but Miss Price was content with the rough outline.
Miss Price is confident that she can help Young Vincent, who grew up in the slum, come into the fold with the suburban students. It’s hard enough that he speaks differently, but what’s worse is that he tries really hard to look disengaged while impressing the students with obvious lies about his past. This story is much more than that, however. With perfect Yates’s subtlety, we see beneath the text to the inner turmoil as Vincent and Miss Price develop a fragile relationship of trust.
“Fun with a Stranger” also focuses on a school room. Here, however, the misfit is the teacher herself. The students feel disappointed they have been assigned to her classroom, but their pride prevents them from admitting just how awful she is. Plus, there is a vulnerable side to Miss Snell that they sense, giving the students some faith in her.
Still, they could not hate Miss Snell, for children’s villains must be all black, and there was no denying that Miss Snell was sometimes nice in an awkward, groping way of her own. “When we learn a new word it’s like making a friend,” she said once. “And we all like to make friends, don’t we? Now, for instance, when school began this year you were all strangers to me, but I wanted very much to learn your names and remember your faces, and so I made the effort. It was confusing at first, but before long I’d made friends with all of you. And later on we’ll have some good times together – oh, perhaps a little party at Christmastime, or something like that – and then I know I’d be very sorry if I hadn’t made that effort, because you can’t very well have fun with a stranger, can you?” She gave them a homely, shy smile. “And that’s just the way it is with words.”
The prospect of the Christmas party helps Miss Snell’s students forgive her shortcomings even though the other students make fun of them for having such a lame teacher. Again, what Yates pulls off with this story goes beyond the simple plot and delves into the characters’ relationships. I found this one particularly unique because the young students are realistically portrayed and yet they seem so much more mature and knowing than their pathetic teacher.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed this book as a whole, not all stories were equal. And it is apparent that Yates is just stretching his wings. Interestingly, I enjoyed his early stories the most because he seems to be writing more from the gut than from his mind. However, that all changes with the final story, “Builders.” When I got to it, it came as a breath of fresh air. His style was mature and yet still fresh, like his earlier stories and like Revolutionary Road. Also, it’s a bit metaphysical:
Writers who write about writers can easily bring on the worst kind of literary miscarriage; everybody knows that. Start a story off with “Craig crushed out his cigarette and lunged for the typewriter,” and there isn’t an editor in the United States who’ll feel like reading your next sentence.
So don’t worry: this is going to be a straight, no-nonsense piece of fiction about a cab driver, a movie star, and an eminent child psychologist, and that’s a promise. But you’ll have to be patient for a minute, because there’s going to be a writer in it too. I won’t call him “Craig,” and I can guarantee that he won’t get away with being the only Sensitive Person among the characters, but we’re going to be struck with him right along and you’d better count on his being as awkward and obtrusive as writers nearly always are, in fiction or in life.
Well, at least some of them – Yates, of course – produce fascinating works for us to enjoy.
My first stop on this year’s National Book Award finalists (and maybe my last since I have yet to acquire one of the other books) is The Lazarus Project (2008), by an author who has a very interesting history. Apparently in 1992 he left Sarajevo to visit Chicago, planning to stay no longer than a few months. Then Sarajevo came under siege, so he remained in Chicago. His first story in English was written in 1995. He has written two other books, one of which, Nowhere Man, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. I don’t foresee such talent in my future, let alone in a language foreign to my own.
The book started out well for me (and even though I may have just given away my final judgment, there’s more to it than that). It’s 1908 Chicago. A young Jewish immiigrant, Lazarus Averbuch, is waiting to visit Chicago’s chief of police. Hemon does an excellent job here setting the scene. I am not a regular visitor of Chicago, but this passage hit it on the head for me:
The late winter has been gleefully tormenting the city. The pure snows of January and the spartan clouds of February are over, and now the temperatures are falseheartedly rising and maliciously dropping: the venom of arbitrary ice storms, the exhausted bodies desperately hoping for spring, all the clothes stinking of stove smoke.
Lazarus visits the Chief once before 9 a.m. but is turned away because of the early hour. When he returns, he is allowed to enter, and the Chief, wary because of Lazarus’s foreign appearance, asks what he wants. Lazarus hands him a piece of paper. The Chief looks at it and then opens fire on the young man, killing him on the spot (and injuring his own son and servant in the process). This much is true. Young Lazarus Averbuch was really shot dead by the George Shippy, the Chicago chief of police, on March 2, 1908. With residents terribly frightened of foreign “anarchists,” early twentieth-century America was the scene for such events, events that just would be so out of place today. At least that’s what we might think.
The book splits into two narrative threads after this short introduction. One continues following the course of events in 1908, after Lazarus was killed. His sister is left alone in a new world that as of yet has not been kind to her. This is a very intriguing historical narrative. Indeed, it made me enjoy the book.
The other narrative takes place in the early twenty-first century. Brik, a young immigrant writer in Chicago, finds the story of Lazarus and wants to develop it. After securing a grant, he and his friend travel to Eastern Europe, wandering from city to city, seemingly finding not much but their own squalid lives. This second narrative held my attention for the first few chapters, but once Brik and Rora started traveling, I quickly lost interest. I’m sure that I missed much in these passages, so some of my final reaction to the book is my own fault for, in a sense, giving up. My eyes did perk up when Lazarus was mentioned in this narrative, though the transitions were clunky (things like, “blah blah blah hair. Lazarus had blah hair.”).
When dealing with dual narrative novels, this disappointment seems to be happening frequently to me as of late. One narrative thread is dreadfully less interesting, causing me to lose out on what I’m sure the author wanted me to feel. Not only that but also when I find the flaws in the weaker narrative, I find similar flaws with the one I have been enjoying. I’m thinking of A Case of Exploding Mangos and The Enchantress of Florence (though in Enchantress the narratives were not necessarily running concurrently). I do like these types of books when done well – here I’m thinking of Possession. Unfortunately, The Lazarus Project fell into the category labeled disappointment.
When Brik is wandering about Europe, the chapters dealing with 1908 become short and almost seem to wander as well, as if Hemon is not sure how to keep this thread going while he finishes the tour of Eastern Europe. We follow Lazarus’s sister around and witness the injustice served her. While it is always tragic, it ceases to become enlightening.
Another interesting aspect of Hemon’s writing is the style that is on one page very evocative and subtle but on the next page, well, blatant and dull. This tends to mimic the character of Rora, who is sometimes deep and pensive and intelligently in control while at other times puerile. And once I start getting annoyed at an author’s style, it’s all downhill from there, even if it’s unfair. I start, for example, rolling my eyes at the overly self-conscious passages, like this one:
I paid Andriy and wished him good luck on his way back, and thus he completed his purpose and exited this narrative.
All in all, I liked this book more than this review shows, but I found it lacking throughout. The ties between the two narratives (and the not-so-subtle but much underdeveloped third of the biblical Lazarus) are never fully developed for me. Perhaps this is because I don’t think the connections between immigration in the early twentieth century and in the early twenty-first century are really as reducible as they appear here. There are some ties, but in my (admittedly unsubstantial) perspective these ties are not enough to substantiate this book. Of course, Hemon himself should know a lot more about the immigrant experience than I do, him having experienced it for one thing, presumably having researched it extensively for this book for another. It just wasn’t communicated to me in a convincing way, I guess. It felt like the connections between all three narrative (1908, 2004, 33ish A.D.) were superficial and forced. Or, as I said earlier, I stopped giving it the thought it deserved – but the fault on that one goes both ways.
This is an interesting project to take on. Many people believe that Lolita is a book somehow sympathetic to pedophiles. Sure, they may say, it probably is written well, but does that excuse the content? Can you get around all the filth just because it is poetic? Doesn’t that, in fact, just make it worse? Well, I’m not necessarily embarassed to read such books, but I was curious about what I would walk away with. Is it famous just because it is scandalous? How does Mr. Nabokov present such a topic?
The first lines are poetic – and disturbing:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps dodwn the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Se was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Several important points of interest are brought to light in these lines. The narrator loves a certain Lolita, a young girl-child. He has done this before. He is a murderer. And a poet. I found it very interesting that Nabakov starts this work in a way remarkably similar to great Romantic poems (some of which probably were written about such sordid love affairs, anyway). Indeed, if Nabokov meant to threaten the reader’s sensibilities (and it seems he did) then he succeeds right out of the gate!
It is understandable why this book gets such a bad rap. Here we have the story of a blissful love affair between a young girl and an older man, a man who goes to disgusting lengths to win her affections. Interestingly, it does read fine on that straightforward level. Lolita practically begs for Humbert Humbert to make love to her. And of course, Humbert Humbert complies. But this is Humbert’s telling – indeed, it is his confession to the police. As far as unreliable narrators go, here’s a great study. Lolita has no way of telling her side of the story. Humbert has monopolized it, and what’s worse, because he is so eloquent, it sounds real. One looks for the layers in his language, not for layers in the story.
I think it’s interesting that on the cover of my edition, Vanity Fair called it “The only convincing love story of our century.” I’d love to read that article to find out it that was said tongue-in-cheek. Whatever the case, pulling that quote certainly leads a browsing book-buyer to assume that this book is in fact a genuine love story. And maybe it is. That’s part of what makes it so interesting.
Enough of that, how was my experience? Excellent. This is a book at once funny and disturbing. Humbert Humbert is an engaging narrator. He begins by explaining his past desires and experiences, and somehow I came to be interested in his humanity despite my disgust at his character. Throughout the story, he engages in layer upon layer of wordplay, some of which, I’m sure, blew right over my head. However, the pieces I caught – like the time when he hides the name of his victim in a french sentence – were fascinatingly well done. It was, I cannot hide, an exhausting read because I was obliged (happily) to read every word carefully. Even in seemingly mundane passages between himself and another mundane character Humbert loads on the dramatic irony. I’m thinking, in particular, of the lengthy passage where Humbert is speaking with headmistress Pratt about Lolita’s
entering an age group where dates, dating, date dress, date book, date etiquette, means as much to her as, say, business, business, business connections, business success, mean to your, or much as [smiling] the happiness of my girls means to me. Dorothy Humbird is already involved in a whole system of social life which consists, whether we like it or not, of hot-dog stands, corner drugstores, malts and cokes, movies, square-dancing, blanket parties on beaches, and even hair-fixing parties.
The humor is on almost every page, mixed with sadness, darkness, tragedy, and wretchedness. Here is the famous passage from near the beginning of the book:
My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy has set: surely, you all know those redolent remnants of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at hte bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges.
But, as I said above, that’s only part of the fun. The deeper aspect, the hidden aspect, is the true character of Dolores Haze. She has witnessed Humbert Humbert’s obsessions and knows what he’s capable of. She’s the title character, and yet she says nothing, even if Humbert Humbert puts words in her mouth. Reading with this in mind hightens the tension between the reader and this confessional manuscript.
As the National Book Award longlist is being announced today, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight one of my favorite past winners: Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (1992). I have still read only two other books by McCarthy: The Road and No Country for Old Men. I have started and stopped Blood Meridian, considered by many to be his masterpiece and one of the great American novels, because I haven’t found a way to get over the violence in that book. I read from Harold Bloom that he had the same problem, but that it is one of his favorites. However, from what I’ve read, though I enjoyed The Road immensely, I think my favorite must be this one.
Here is the first beautiful paragraph, a great place to start the review, I think:
The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscotting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm was pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed mustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.
Introduced above is sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole and his dead maternal grandfather, the last of the Grady line, which is also “dimly” introduced. With this death, John is basically dispossessed of the ranch because his mother has left to join a theater and his father has nothing to do with the place. Not really knowing where to go or what to do, he takes off with his best friend Lacey Rawlins to cross from Texas to Mexico.
Thus, All the Pretty Horses becomes one of the great “wanderer” books, where the character and the plot goes from place to place, from person to person, deepening on a philosophical level all the while. On the way to Mexico, John and Rawlins meet with Jimmy Blevins, a fourteen-year-old sharpshooter, who speaks like a man, but we know better. Strangely, that is one of the most profound parts of the book for me: these three children have believable conversations about life and death and love. Somehow what they say sounds more reliable and genuine than what I read in other books from more mature characters.
Some of this depth is definitely due to McCarthy’s prose. I’m not usually a fan of long running sentences because it usually feels like the writer is calling attention to himself rather than to the character. But when it’s done with skill it is powerful, deepening the texture of the story. The following passage illuminates the contrasting style and texture in two consecutive paragraphs.
That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers our of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their mains and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.
In the morning two guards came and opened the door and handcuffed Rawlins and led him away. John Grady stood and asked where they were taking him but they didnt answer. Rawlins didnt even look back.
Along the way around the novel, John Grady Cole falls in love with the daughter of a rich Mexican rancher. Where some authors would perhaps center the novel around this event, McCarthy presents it as an important event that resonates with John through the rest of the book but that doesn’t become McCarthy’s focus as well. However, the encounters are excellently construed and resonate with the reader as well. Here’s another chance to show off a bit of McCarthy’s interesting prose. Once again, I can only say that the stylistic tricks don’t feel like tricks to me but rather serve to give the book texture that is rare today, though many try:
She paused midway to look back. Standing there trembling in the water and not from the cold for there was none. Do not speak to her. Do not call. When she reached him he held out his hand and she took it. She was so pale in the lake she seemed to be burning. Like foxfire in a darkened wood. That burned cold. Like the moon that burned cold. Her black hair floating on the water about her, falling and floating on the water. She put her other arm about his shoulder and looked toward the moon in the west do not speak to her do not call and then she turned her face up to him.
One of the many fascinating aspects of the book that I want to mention is that the story takes place in 1949, which hardly seems possible given the setting and the violence which tempted me to place the story much earlier in, say, the 1860s. However, from what I’ve heard, the setting and events is not anachronistic, making this book quite a learning experience for me, bringing the old American West with its violence and life much closer to home. That said, one shouldn’t shy away from this book because it is a Western. It is a great piece of literature that just happens to take place in a setting similar to any American Western. The true pearls in the text are how McCarthy uses this setting to ruminate on deeper, universal themes.
On another note, this book is the first of the “Border Trilogy” and you can see in the first paragraph of this review that I haven’t read the other two, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain. Nor do I have a strong desire to read them just yet. To me All the Pretty Horses was complete. Sure, I’m interested to know where the young man goes next, but for now I’m enjoying the idea that his wanderings continue. It’s hard to imagine it getting better.
You may have gleened from the pulled quotes above that this is not the type of book that would have impressed this year’s judges for the Booker Prize. After all, I had to read the first paragraph several times before I knew what was going on, and even then I still had no idea who “he” was for quite a while. McCarthy doesn’t use much puncuation, instead relying on his experience as a master revisionist to help him get sentences to the point where they don’t need punctuation to be understandable. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. That doesn’t mean it’s accessible to those who are just looking to breeze through a book. But the work pays off, as it always does with the best pieces of literature. We see that a master craftsman carefully weighed his or her options when deciding how to piece together a book in such a way to affect a thoughtful reader. And believe it or not, because the prose is still so natural, when one gets into the story it flows smoothly.
Here’s hoping that the National Book Award can find and honor such a book again this year.
Before you read the book:
After I read American Pastoral I realized that if I planned on reading all of Roth’s “Zuckerman” books in order, I’d already failed, having skipped The Counterlife (1986). Oh well. It actually doesn’t throw anything off at all. There’s little continuity between The Counterlife and the previous Zuckerman book, The Prague Orgy, and there also was no great hole between The Counterlife and American Pastoral. However, I still like the idea of watching Zuckerman age, so before moving on to I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, and Exit Ghost, I figured I’d better step back to the first Zuckerman book to win one of the U.S.’s major literary awards, taking the National Book Critics Circle for Fiction in 1987.
So all of the Zuckerman books are experiments in the metaphysical. Nathan Zuckerman is known to take liberty when narrating the lives of his friends and family, leading to some incredible, extended passages where he imagines their life for them: in The Ghost Writer we have his amazing extended alternate life for Amy Bellette; in American Pastoral he fills in the large gaps of the Swede’s life with his own version of what happened, to devestating effect.
The Counterlife is along the same idea and yet it is very different. Where the two works I mentioned above still have the feel of a realistic novel, The Counterlife plays with all sorts of metaphysical and metafictional conceits with more post-modernist flare that . . . well, let me try to give a brief look at the novel without giving it away.
The book is broken into five sections: “Basel,” “Judea,” “Aloft,” “Gloucestershire,” and “Christendom.” In the first, we find out that Nathan’s brother Henry has died during surgery he hoped would enable him to stop taking medication that was making him impotent. But with Roth a lot of the fun is not just in the story – it’s in the writing. Here is a great example of a sentence that flows smoothly despite the complexities, a sentence that pushes us one direction, subverts our expectation, and then takes us to a final word that casts the beginning words in a different light:
They experimented for six months, first with the dosage and, when that didn’t work, with other brands of the drug, but nothing helped: he no longer awakened with his morning erection or had sufficient potency for intercourse with his wife, Carol, or with his assistant, Wendy, who was sure that it was she, and not the medication, that was responsible for this startling change.
Zuckerman attends Henry’s funeral, and in a passage between him and Henry’s wife, Carol, we get a flavor for how this book is going to shift our perspective many times, making the true life not just ellusive but down right impossible to determine.
But in Zuckerman’s arms, pressing herself up against his chest, all she said, in a breaking voice, was “It helped me enormously, your being here.”
Consequently he had no reason to reply, “So that’s why you made up that story,” but said nothing more than what was called for. “It helped me, being with you all.”
Carol did not then respond, “Of course that’s why I said what I did. Those bitches all weeping their hearts out – sitting there weeping for their man. The hell with that!” Instead she said to him, “It meant a lot to the children to see you. They needed you today. You were lovely to Ruth.”
Nathan did not ask, “And you let him go ahead with the surgery, knowing who it was for?” He said, “Ruth’s a terrific girl.”
In the second section, Henry is ressurrected by Zuckerman’s pen. After surviving the surgery, however, Henry gets a strong urge to completely change his life to give it meaning. This secular Jew from South Orange, New Jersey, decides to move to the Holy Land, the West Bank to be exact, in order to join a group of Jewish fundamentalists seeking to overpower the Arabs. Again, we get multiple perspectives here. Here is one from a secular Jew living in Jerusalem:
“Who comes to this country now to settle and live? The intellectual Jew? The humane Jew? The beautiful Jew? No, not the Jew from Buenos Aires, or Rio, or Manhattan. The ones who come from America are either religious or crazy or both. This place has become the American-Jewish Australia. Now who we get is the Oriental jew and the Russian Jew and the social misfits like your brother, roughnecks in yarmulkes from Brooklyn.”
And here is one from one of the Jews in Henry’s (or Hanoch, for he’s also adopted a new name with his new life) settlement:
“But assimilation and intermarriage,” she said, turning quite grave, “in America they are bringing about a second Holocaust – truly, a spiritual Holocaust is taking place there, and it is as deadly as any threat posed by the Arabs to the State of Israel. . . .”
And amazingly, there’s are still several more turns of perspective. In the sections that follow we have Zuckerman imagine his own death while his mistress Maria and his still-alive brother make us question the veracity of the prior sections while providing a nice introduction to the final section – or conjuration – “Christendom.”
Unlike many contemporary works, when Roth pulls these literary tricks he does so for a deeper purpose. As in Indignation, a primary theme is escaping history, both the large scale events that overtake us regardless of our own will and the individual stories we create for ourselves to get through it all.
All of this makes The Counterlife much more complex and dense than the other Zuckerman books I’ve read. That doesn’t mean it was better, but it definitely satisfied me.
And here is a great line that describes a bit of where Roth has been with his work and a lot about where he is going:
The treacherous imagination is everybody’s maker – we are all the invention of each other, everybody a conjuration conjuring up everyone else. We are all each other’s authors.
Before you read the book:
A few weeks ago when I realized that October was just around the corner (I’m always behind on this stuff these days), I decided to look for a good literary creepy book with loads of atmosphere. Hence, my venture to Patrick McGrath. Here’s yet another well known author who is new to me. Thanks to John Self’s blog – yes, “Asylum” – I am now an initiate to this “gothic” author. So here is a bit of an homage to you, John. It’s because of your blog I chose this particular author – one of your favorites, I see – and this particular title as my first.
I have to be honest: at first I wasn’t sure I picked out the right book for me, let alone the right book to suit my mood. At first it felt a bit too – oh, I don’t know - focused on unruly passionate romance. That unsatisfied feeling didn’t last too long, though. Quickly, I saw that the development of the love affair was not nearly as important as its psychological repurcussions. And McGrath does an excellent job creating tension through the psyche.
Though as I said the first couple dozen pages didn’t work for me, the first paragraph really grabbed me as it explained quite a bit of what was to come:
The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now. Such relationships vary widely in duration and intensity but tend to pass through the same stages. Recognition. Identification. Assignation. Structure. Complication. And so on. Stella Raphael’s story is one of the saddest I know. A deeply frustrated woman, she suffered the predictable consequences of a long denial collapsing in the face of sudden overwhelming temptation. And she was a romantic. She translated her experience with Edgar Stark into the stuff of melodrama, she made of it a tale of outcast lovers braving the world’s contempt for the sake of a great passion. Four lives were destroyed in the process, but whatever remorse she may have felt she clung to her illusions to the end. I tried to help but she deflected me from the truth until it was too late. She had to. She couldn’t afford to let me see it clearly, it would have been the ruin of the few flimsy psychic structures she had left.
Here we meet our narrator, Peter Cleave, a psychiatrist at an asylum for the criminally insane. Stella is the wife to the newly staffed forensic psychiatrist, the ambitious Max Rapheal. Edgar Stark, Stella’s lover, happens to be one of Peter Cleave’s patients, an artist who, after developing jealous delusions, killed his wife and then mutilated her head.
Even though Stella knows a bit about Edgar’s past, she is incredibly attracted to him as he works to fix up their conservatory. She simply cannot believe that he’s as dangerous as they say, and in fact she doesn’t believe he should be locked up at all. This is all background, though, and something we can basically get from that first paragraph.
Once the love affair develops, however, the book immerses itself into Stella’s psyche as she navigates through her relationships with Edgar and Max and Doctor Cleave. Here, for example, is an encounter Stella has with Max soon after the love affair is off the ground.
Behind him on the far side of the drive the pines rose in a dark mass against the evening sky. She embraced him with a warmth unusual for her, and as she did so an ironic thought sprang into her mind, that it’s the guilt of the adulterous woman that drives her into her husband’s arms.
“Hello,” he said as she clung to him like a woman adrift, a woman drowning, “what’s all this?”
She moved away to the mirror over the empty fireplace and patted at her hair, and tried to find some sign of sin on her face.
“Nothing. I missed you today, that’s all.”
“Why did you miss me?”
She turned to face him. There was real curiosity in his voice, and she felt the psychiatrist in the man, or rather, the man receded and the psychiatrist emerged as the wheels turned and she saw him examine this fragment of her psychic life and fish around for its meaning. In that moment he became her enemy. She knew then that any openness between them was dangerous, and that her explosive secret must be hidden with especial skill from the eyes of this sudden stranger with his desperately acute powers of mental intrusion and perception.
Thankfully for me, the book continues in this vain, focusing mainly on internal elements rather than on the love affair. And McGrath has some other interesting components to the story. It doesn’t take long before we can start wondering how Peter Cleave knows as much about the love affair as he does. And soon after we can begin questioning how he fits into this mix. Though his language is most of the time clinically detached, we can discern that that is one of his own devices for covering his feelings.
Bolstering the narrative are a number of gothic elements – the architecture, a conservatory, the garden, the sea, the torrential love – but none of them feel cliched or out of place for the story. In other words, while this has gothic elements, I wouldn’t say it’s a “gothic” book. That would, in my opinion, place it in a restricting category. It’s much more than that.
So I’m happy with my first foray into McGrath’s land. I’m sad to report, however, that it wasn’t quite as moody and disturbing in a creepy, haunting way as I was hoping. Any suggestions?
Before you read the book:
It seems that by writing these reviews I’m actually making my ignorance increasingly apparent. See, this is the first book by Paul Auster that I’ve read. Thankfully, I can (sort of) say that I’ve read three of Auster’s books as this is a “trilogy.” Here we have three pieces, “City of Glass” (1985), “Ghosts” (1986), and “The Locked Room” (1986). The three were compiled almost right away (which was the point all along) into a single work: The New York Trilogy (1987). Indeed, even while they were being written they were referred to as the New York Trilogy. While all three are unique, each also ties to themes and even passages of another. I’d go so far as to say that in order to fully enjoy them, they should each be read and in order (and maybe read again). I feel I had the good fortune to read it in one of its newest editions with a pulp feel and cover art from Art Speigelman.
Let me first give a brief introduction to each story. Here’s my feeble attempt at a compelling blurb!
City of Glass: The first story is also the longest, coming in at 130 pages in my edition. Daniel Quinn is a mystery writer who lost his wife and young son a few years ago in an accident. Lonely, he almost feels more at home in his pen-name William Wilson, or even in his character’s persona. One late night, he gets a phone call for a Paul Auster, the detective. Quinn tells the caller he’s not the man, but then he wishes he’d have played along for a while. Fortunately, he gets his chance. Assuming the identity of Paul Auster, Quinn accepts a strange assignment involving metaphysical elements from Genesis, Don Quixote, Humpty-Dumpty, and more. The questions we ask are pulled up from the level of the story itself to the nature of story, the writing of it, etc.
Ghosts: Blue is a detective, trained by Brown. White hires Blue to spy on Black. Blue knows next to nothing about what he’s looking for, so he sets up shop in an apartment across the street from Black’s apartment in Brooklyn. Not much happens – on the outside, anyway. However, Blue is not necessarily bored. On the contrary, he comes to know himself better than before.
The Locked Room: The first-person narrator in this story is contacted by Sophie, the wife of Fanshawe, his best friend during childhood (I caught the references to Hawthorne, but I don’t know what they mean). Fanshawe has disappeard, months ago, in fact. It’s so uncharacteristic of him that the narrator and Sophie assume he’s dead. It’s been years since the narrator had any contact with Fanshawe, and he feels he doesn’t know him at all anymore. Nevertheless, shortly before he disappeared Fanshawe gave his wife all of his writings and told him to contact the narrator if something should happen to him. Turns out that the writings are brilliant, and the narrator and Sophie are falling in love.
The strange thing about the blurbs above is that they sound sort of like hard-boiled detective novels. That’s not the case though. The basics of the plot intentionally play with elements from classic crime, but these books dwell on the metaphysical. And Auster’s writing is at once clear and poetic (not always the case when dealing with books that ask questions beyond their capacity to answer).
Interestingly, just when I thought “City of Glass” and “Ghosts” were already working layers and layers above the actual stories, “The Locked Room” pulls the perspective up even further, leaving more questions.
So, how does New York play into this? First and foremost, that’s where the stories are set, for the most part. But there’s more to it, especially in “City of Glass.”
New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within.
Besides presenting the city as a sort of motif within which to explore metaphysical ideas, Auster also uses this opportunity to present some of New York’s fascinating history. For example, stories about where Poe, Witman, Thoreau, and others sat and pondered, are slyly inserted into the trilogy, shedding light on the mood while presenting more questions. Tales about the architecture, in particular about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, are inserted in ways that both give a sense of place and a sense of the psychology of the character.
I was not sure what I was getting into when I opened up to the first story “City of Glass.” To be honest, I’m not sure what I got after finishing all three pieces. Indeed, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say this, the answer to all of the questions I came up with were not answered. At the end of each story I found myself asking, “What about this? What about that?” Don’t most mystery novels tie up the loose ends? Is Auster just fooling with me? Believe me, though, I was grinning while I was asking those questions. These stories are unsatisfying in the most satisfying way. Where most mysteries end up falling short of the reader’s expectations when full disclosure is made, these excellent pieces allow the reader to keep on searching.
Before you read the book:
A few months back I read Amis’s Night Train, and it has stuck in my mind more than most other books I’ve read this year. In those comments, Stewart from booklit recommended Time’s Arrow. I admit, I had first put this book off as a gimmicky, post-modern, literary device that was effective when Kurt Vonnegut used it in Slaugher-house Five but that should not be repeated in order to keep pure the aura of Vonnegut’s magnificent passage, where we witness events in backwards time:
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter plans flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
. . . .
It’s a fantastic passage, and I didn’t really want to see the technique become a gimmick. But, on Stewart’s good word, I decided to venture into Time’s Arrow.
First things first: I’m glad it was Amis who did this – and, it must be noted, Amis acknowledges Vonnegut’s passage (as well as a story by Isaac Beshevis Singer, which I have no knowledge of). Amis’s style and wit made me forget (almost) that this is really just Vonnegut’s passage expanded to book length. At any rate, it made it so I didn’t care that this was just Vonnegut’s passage expanded to book length. I imagine this must be difficult to pull off, and Amis does it brilliantly.
Here we meet Tod T. Friendly, just as he’s born from death. In his birth, however, he is not alone. The narrator of the book, though he is Friendly, is a separate entity. He’s watching Friendly’s life in reverse. He looks at things from Friendly’s perspective, can feel Friendly’s emotions, but he cannot know Friendly’s thoughts.
The first part of the novel is the progress from senescence to middle-age. The narrator is disoriented; after all, the world doesn’t quite make sense. Amis focuses on the quotidian as he entertains us:
Eating is unattractive too. First I stack the clean plates in the dishwasher, which works okay, I guess, like all my other labor-saving devices, until some fat bastard shows up in his jumpsuit and trumatizes them with his tools. So far so good: then you select a soiled dish, collect some scraps from the garbage, and settle down for a short wait. Varios items get gulped up into my mouth, and after skillfull massage with tongue and teeth I transfer them to the plate for additional sculpture with knife and fork and spoon. . . . Next you fact the laborious business of cooling, of reassembly, of storage, before the return of these foodstuffs to the Superette, where, admittedly, I am promptly and generously reimbursed for my pains. Then you tool down the aisles, with trolley or basket, returning each can and packet to its rightful place.
There are several sly observations: “The Reagan Era, I think, is doing wonders for Tod’s morale.”
And here is one of the parts that really made me chuckle:
Tennis is a pretty dumb game, I’m finding: the fuzzy ball jumps out of the net, or out of the chicken wire at the back of the court, and the four of us bat it around until it is pocketed – quite arbitrarily, it seems to me – by the server.
Perhaps you’ll see that, up till this point, it was all entertaining but really made me question whether that was the only point. Still, there were some beautiful, poetic parts throughout, especially those that deal with relationships:
She’s miserable that it all has to end. Me, I’m miserable that it’s all beginning. By the time we’re on the other side of this, I know (I’m experienced), by the time I’ve become really fond of them and their pretty ways, they will start to recede, irreversibly, fading from me, with the lightest of kisses, the briefest squeeze of the hand, the brush of a stockinged calf beneath the table, a smile. They’ll be fobbing us off with the flowers and the chocolates. Oh yes. I’ve been there. Then, one day, they just look right through you.
The world doesn’t make sense to our narrator: “Now and then, when the night sky is starless, I look up and form the hilarious suspicion that the world will soon start making sense.” All of this confusion, however, leads to a time when the world does make sense. It turns out that Friendly was involved in a grand project: creating a human race from smoke and ashes. It is then that we come to understand why the subtitle of the book – “The Nature of the Offense,” a line from Primo Levi. It is at this point that the book turns from just being very clever to also being very poignant. By reversing cause and effect Amis also reimagines the motives behind one of the ugliest times in human history. By doing this, he adds to the literature of this period by illuminating the nature of evil by presenting its polar opposite. His cleverness and poetry are put to good use.
I believe it’s true and fair to say that in doing this Amis is doing nothing more than what Vonnegut did in his short two-page passage. At least, the basic idea is the same. But that doesn’t make this books less powerful or even less unique in its own way. After all, how many books do we have going forward in time, and even going back and forth in time? Yet we appreciate works in those tired formats when they make us think and feel – and this book does that.