The more I think about Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl (my review here), the more sure I am that it will be on my year-end best list. I loved that charming and yet dark book. Consequently, I’ve been slowly getting my hands on more of Hofmann’s work, which has been translated sporadically by various publishers over the past thirty years. In this quest, I was excited to see that one of Hofmann’s books was inspired by a Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting The Blind Leading the Blind. Thanks in part to Michael Frayn’s fantastic Headlong, which was on my year-end best list last year (my review of Headlong here; my 2010 year-end best list here), I couldn’t resist reading Hofmann’s The Parable of the Blind (Der Blindensturz, 1985; tr. from the German by Christopher Middleton, 1986).
First things first:
On the day when we’re to be painted — yet another new day! — a knocking on the barn door drags us out of our sleep.
Just reading that simple opening sentence about “the knocker” reminded me of one of the things I liked best about Hofmann’s style in Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl: there’s an unabashed use of exclamation marks that lightens to the point of exuberance the tone of what might otherwise be very depressing. It’s an emotional mix of humor and seriousness that makes that book transcendent, and this first sentence in this book had me hoping for much the same thing here. I wasn’t disappointed.
The speaker – that “we” – is a group of blind men who wander from town to town. Hofmann establishes their blind perspective right away:
Around us thick soft flakes of snow, clearly remembered, are falling into the gentle folds of the countryside and burying everything: the plow, the weeds, the trees, as well as all the other things we gave up long ago, but which probably still exist.
The word “probably” gets repeated over and over, much as “And then?” did in Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl. It’s a constant reminder that even while we are reading about what’s happening in the physical world, the person speaking is seeing complete blackness. Neither we readers nor the speakers are actually seeing what’s going on, but somehow it is being conveyed. Or, at least, something is being conveyed.
In fact, these blind men aren’t sure of much of anything (though I’m not saying this is the conventional “unreliable narrator”; it’s much more about the transfer through words or images than about the reliability of the speaker). For example, these men aren’t even sure of each other. They are led by one who, probably, can see well enough to distinguish light from dark. We have reason to suspect otherwise. One among them was blinded unnaturally, probably for punishment, and has taken the place of one who died – they figure they will probably push him in a ditch and leave him some day
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One of the biggest questions they have is why the painter would be interested in painting them. No one really knows. Even the beloved knocker (the kind-ish man who woke them up and eventually took them to a rather humiliating breakfast) cannot fathom why anyone would want to paint them. Others are downright mean and dismissive:
And then the man who isn’t the knocker suddenly flies into a rage and jumps around on the ground in front of us. Perhaps because we mistook him for the knocker, perhaps for another reason. And he shouts that it’s wrong to talk with us and to be concerned with us and to let us run around because we bring disorder into everything, thoughts, people, the air. And that we trample down everything that’s in our way. Look at them, he exclaims, and probably he’s pointing at us.
At once we think we might be standing among flowers and we step back, but aren’t certain if we’re stepping out of one lot of flowers into another.
The story progresses as these blind men try to find the painter’s house. As you might imagine, it’s not a pleasant journey. Of course, Hofmann’s prose style leavens the seriousness of what’s going on as these men are subjected to one humiliation after another. That’s not to say the tone is always comic: “How often we tell ourselves: Let’s just go to sleep! — and forget that we’re already asleep.” And the best is when the comic and the dark come together in fine long passages, like this one when they finally get to the painter’s:
The painter, who probably noticed us at once and is probably striding up and down by the probably wide-open window of his house, says — we can’t hear it all — that he’s always been surrounded by whole spaces full of pictures, afflicted by them. These spaces, he says, come to me, they come into my house. These are the spaces in which he lives, though of course there are also the other ones. How many times he’s sat, especially on the long winter evenings, in the middle of those spaces and the pictures have shown him the world. More and more often now, since the slaughter at Liège, the pictures are of people dying and dead. The pictures in these spaces, now without a sky, with a high horizon, are all filled, to the limit of the frame, gold, my good friend, with images of people and things dying, perishing, or dead already. All in extremis, he says. Like these here, he adds and probably points out through the window, thus probably at us.
Asking the blind men to practice stumbling and then falling into a ditch (over and over again) so he can get the interior of their mouths correct, even the master, who offers them this great honor, is cruel and then dismissive.
This is a strange book filled with a bleak outlook on these outwardly jovial men who live in total darkness and alienation. Certainly, the terror is expressed as well here as it is in the visual art by Bruegel himself.
That said, I liked it much less than Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl, which in general I found to be both more vivacious and more bleak. This is certainly a good read, though, and I recommend it.
I love this time of year! The Man Booker Prize longlist is as follows (dates in parentheses indicate when the title is slated for publication in the United States if it is not already available):
- The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes (January 24, 2012)
- On Canaan’s Side, Sebastian Barry (September 8, 2011)
- Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch
- The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt
- Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan (I don’t see a date for this one)
- A Cupboard Full of Coats, Yvvette Edwards
- The Stranger’s Child, Alan Holinghurst (October 11, 2011)
- Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman
- The Last Hundred Days, Patrick McGuinness (I don’t see a date for this one)
- Snowdrops, A.D. Miller
- Far to Go, Alison Pick
- The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Jane Rogers (I don’t see a date for this one)
- Derby Day, D.J. Taylor (I don’t see a date for this one)
So, six of the titles are already available in the U.S., a couple more due out before the winner is announced, and four that may never make it here, which is basically right in line with past years. We’ll have to see if the longlist gets any of the other titles a U.S. publication. Last year, my two favorites (Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room (review here), and Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question (review here)) were not available in the U.S. when the longlist was announced but were soon offered as ebooks, which is how I read them, and eventually were published in paperback.
I haven’t read any of the books on this year’s longlist, though I do have copies of The Sisters Brothers and The Stranger’s Child, both of which I’ve been meaning to read, mostly in anticipation of this list. I’ve heard a lot about On Canaan’s Side, Pigeon English and Snowdrops, but I’ll have to revisit to see if I want to read them. I felt let down with Barry’s last Booker contender, The Secret Scripture (my review here) but I liked it enough that I may give this one a go. KevinfromCanada reviewed Far to Go earlier this year (KFC review here), and I have it marked as one I’d like to get to. I have a soft spot for Julian Barnes, and this short novel sounds excellent to me.
Some exclusions of past winners: Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in the Tower, Michael Ondaatje’s Cat’s Table, Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here, Barry Unsworth’s The Quality of Mercy, and Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz. There are also some past strong shortlisters whose exclusion may surprise some: Ali Smith’s There but for the, Edward St. Aubyn’s At Last, Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance, Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good, and Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers. I thought perhaps David Bezmozgis’s The Free World would find its way there (I’ve read this one but haven’t reviewed it yet — soon).
The general breakdown (which I got from the Man Booker Prize website’s official write-up (here)), is one former winner (Holinghurst), two previous shortlisters (Barnes and Barry), and one previous longlister (Birch). There are four first time novelists (Kelman, Miller, Edwards, and McGuinness) and three Canadians writers on the list (deWitt, Edugyan, and Pick).
The shortlist will be announced September 6. The winner on October 18.
Other than that, I’m anxious to see how this year stacks up. I’m not particularly thrilled about any of the titles, but that hopefully will change.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Justin Torres’s “Reverting to a Wild State” was originally published in the August 1, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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I had never heard of Justin Torres, though he has published stories in Granta and Tin House, two literary journals I often read. This is his debut in The New Yorker and it feels like a real short story, though he is publishing his first novel, We the Animals, with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September.
“Reverting to a Wild State” has an interesting, if not necessarily original, structure. It begins with Part 3 and works its way down to Part 0, moving us in reverse chronological order. Part 3 opens up with the narrator on a train platform, heading uptown to “clean for a man,” even though it’s past midnight. Other than a few people, the train platform is empty. While he stands on the train platform, he sees a feather on the edge, and, just before the train comes, he leans over to pick it up.
I waited there, poised, fascinated, as the train approached and the eyes widened. When I finally stood, the woman and the young man were staring baldly. We were all connected, all relieved that I had not jumped.
When the narrator gets to the building with the penthouse suite overlooking Central Park, the narrator introduces himself to the doorman as a Puerto Rican named Salvatore, and he admits to the reader that “Salvatore” is just a made up name. Salvatore knows the doorman knows he’s not really Salvatore, and we all know that “cleaning” is just a a pretext (though he will soon be polishing the windows with a newspaper and ammonia). Salvatore is a gay prostitute, and Part 3 ends with a bit that’s just as sad as the opening:
I did not look at him. I looked at me in the window: half disappeared, slim, and young. If you don’t pretend at vanity, the men feel dissatisfied. Look at my smooth skin, look at my young face, look at my golden feather!
And then something else, conviction, took over; I am a very good pretender. So, more than anything, I want to say this: in that moment I was happy.
Parts 2 and 1 take us back a bit to Salvatore’s crumbling relationship with Nigel, his justifiably jealous lover. Part 0 takes us back (almost) to where their relationship began, back to the two of them arriving, just as a storm arrives, to a farm in Virginia where they’ve been hired as farmhands for the summer. I both do and don’t want to give away the last little bit; it was only there, after all, that I really started to appreciate the story. Up to that point, it was well written in straight-forward prose, but the relationship and the reverse chronology didn’t really feel unique. The last paragraph packs enough power, though, to rework what’s come before, and I especially appreciated the artistry that called this section Part 0 rather than Part 1.
If it weren’t for the last little bit, I’d say the story is well written but forgettable and one to pass. The ending changed all that for me (except for the well written part; the story is simple and clear), not necessarily enough for me to go out proclaiming this piece and probably not enough for me to rush out in September to read We the Animals, but certainly enough for me to say this is a worthwhile read and that Torres is worth watching.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Robert Coover’s “Matinée” was originally published in the July 25, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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For some time I wanted to read more Robert Coover. Some trusted people raved about The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., and recently Penguin UK released a few of his books in their nice Penguin Modern Classic line (Gerald’s Party, Pricksongs and Descants, Briar Rose and Spanking the Maid, and Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady), and I’m intrigued by his new book Noir. However, back in March when we read his last story in The New Yorker, “Going for a Beer” (post here) I put him out of my head; I just didn’t like that piece much. But “Matinée,” a montage story about desperately lonely people, has piqued my interest in the veteran writer (he’s now 79; what with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (84), Alice Munro (80), we’ve had some real veterans in the past month).
The piece begins like this:
Weary of the tedium of her days, her lonely life going nowhere, she skips work and steps inside a half-empty old movie house showing a scratched and grainy romantic film from her youth; she takes her favorite seat in the middle of the seventh row, hoping to experience once again the consoling power of sudden uncomplicated love, even if not one’s own, love that has no trajectory attached to it but is a pure and immediate enrichment of the soul and delight of the body.
Coover then goes on to tell us what’s going on in the movie. This isn’t the only movie in this story, and it’s not the only time Coover will move away from whatever character is watching the film and into the film itself. In this particular scene, two strangers board a train. Coover delights in the fact that we know what’s coming, and he lavishly moves into the sentimental:
They lean toward each other to speak earnestly about the weather and the vexations of travel, their hearts visibly melting, and receive from a severe old lady sitting near the compartment door a particularly withering glance, but there is a telltale tear in her eye, as if she might once long ago have been similarly struck [ . . . ]
The sentence then takes us back out of the movie and to the woman sitting in that lonely theater: ” — just as there is a tear in her own eye, as she sits there in the musty old movie house.” The movie is actually making her more sad. These actors are dead now, and she knows she will also be dead, and without that simple love. But then, when she steps into the isle, he steps into the isle too, and “they will accidentally bump into each other, or maybe it won’t be an accident but something, well, something ordained.”
Coover then takes us out again. This poor woman in the theater, perhaps bumping into true love just at her moment of deepest despair, is actually in a movie herself. And a desperately lonely man is watching it:
Alone at home, he watched this old film, imagining that it is he who rises from the third row as the movie-house lights come up and, as he lifts hat and coat from the adjoining seat, catches a glimpse of the sorrowful woman four rows back, who seems to be tearfully staring at him. A sourceless music rises, throbbing, as though from out of their share gaze.
The story continues to play with what is in a movie and what is real, and we never know who “he” or “she” is at any given time. In fact, by the end, the characters have blended so much that some who were once in a movie are suddenly obviously (maybe) not in a movie, but are in fact thinking back with nostalgia and melancholy about the time “he” or “she” ran into that stranger on the train.
It may sound tricksy, and I suppose it is, but for me it really worked. The universal loneliness came through, the characters’ inability to satisfy their loneliness vicariously or, on the off-chance they meet someone, in actuality (most often at a cheap hotel), is nicely rendered in Coover’s smooth and enjoyable style (the only thing I really liked in “Going for a Beer”). And the ending is terribly great.
The first of Echenoz’s eccentric fictional biographies is the last I read (the others are Running and Lightning, reviewed here and here, respectively). For a couple of years I’ve wanted to read Ravel (2005; tr. from the French by Linda Coverdale, 2007), since it was a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2009. It was the first time I’d heard of Echenoz, and this short biography of Maurice Ravel’s last ten years (though I hadn’t read it) made me start paying attention to Echenoz’s work from the sidelines (that, and KevinfromCanada, since Ravel, has frequently reviewed Echenoz’s work — click here).
Other than the fact that he composed Bolero, I knew next to nothing about Ravel. After reading this book, I still know little about Ravel, but I don’t believe that was necessarily the point. Rather, what we get are some beautifully lit episodes (the first starts us in the bathtub with Ravel, ruminating over the problems of leaving the bathtub), and sometimes it’s not even the facts about Ravel that make the passages come alive. For example, the book’s second chapter begins on board an ocean liner that will take Ravel on his first and last tour of the United States. It begins with some exceptional detail about the boat, France, beginning by telling us that it ”still has nine active years ahead of her before her sale to the Japanese for scrap.” The chapter proceeds for a few paragraphs describing France‘s past and future, bringing some great historical texture to the book.
Echenoz’s eye for detail doesn’t change when it shifts to Ravel. One of the first things we get is his eccentric wardrobe:
In addition to a small blue valise crammed full of Gauloises, the other bags contain — among other things — sixty shirts, twenty pairs of shoes, seventy-five ties, and twenty-five sets of pajamas that, given the principle of the part for the whole, offer some idea of the scope of his wardrobe.
I think we can apply the last part of that passage as we look at the book itself in that that passage, given the principle of the part for the whole, offers some idea of Ravel. The language, even while dwelling on details, will be easy to take, even delightful at times (check out this one from a meeting with Joseph Conrad that apparently didn’t go well at all; fortunately they were joined by Jean-Aubry who “[i]n this desert . . . had shuttled between the two mutes like an exhausted fireman, trying to bestow upon each one in turn a little artificial respiration.”). The details will be eccentric, but well chosen; they will be given precedence over any type of expansive shot. This is also representative of the narrative itself: Ravel is a series of nine precisely drawn, detail-oriented vignettes (the introduction calls them “cameos”) and not an attempt to exhaust us with the facts of Ravel’s last years. It’s excellent.
Around half of the book covers the tour of the United States, its ups and downs. This is a bit different from Running and Lightning, which move the subjects rather quickly through much more time. That’s not the only difference. Along the same lines, Ravel‘s tone is generally slower and less whimsical. Now, those other two were chuck-full of whimsy, so that’s not to say it isn’t whimsical at all.
Some of the whimsy comes out when we get back to Europe and Ravel begins to compose Bolero. Here is a sense: “The music, this time, is of no great importance.” I listened to Bolero several times while reading this book, and it’s fascinating to look at Ravel’s reasoning, as interpreted by Echenoz.
Perhaps a reason I feel this one is so much less whimsical than the other two in the trilogy is because the tone throughout is a bit more elegiac. We’re told in the first chapter that Ravel has exactly ten years left to live. The attention to detail seemed to emphasize the passage of time, and not long after Ravel has composed Bolero he has to ask people whose music he’s listening to. It’s his own. Running and Lightning are sad, yes, but by the time we read about Ravel’s tragic wreck and invasive brain surgery we don’t remember much of the book’s whimsy. The last line, which isn’t a spoiler, nicely conveys what I mean:
he leaves no will, no image on film, not a single recording of his voice.
I’ve had Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance (Az ellanállás melankóliája, 1989; tr. from the Hungarian by George Szirtes, 1998) on my shelf for some time now. I have been anxious to read it, but its 314 pages of single paragraphs (there are a few breaks) left me wary. But along came Animalinside (my review here); at just over thirty pages, it was a great way to read a bit of Krasznahorkai without having to commit to such a long text. I liked it so much that almost immediately I pulled down The Melancholy of Resistance and, never-ending paragraphs be hanged, plunged in. It took me a while to read, but it was time well spent — it was an experience.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
First things first: I’m happy to say that once began, the single paragraph thing wasn’t a hurdle at all. The first section of the book is simply amazing, and I was pulled into the book and propelled forward, even though it was late at night and I was just dabbling with the idea of starting the daunting book.
It begins on a train platform. The train is late, and Krasznahorkai shows how such a thing can bend our perceptions, making it “reality, only more so.” The tension builds nicely, much as it does when you’re waiting for a late train and a bit of unwelcome chaos disconcertingly enters the day.
To tell the truth, none of this really surprised anyone any more since rail travel, like everything else, was subject to the prevailing conditions: all normal expectations went by the board and one’s daily habits were disrupted by a sense of ever-spreading all-consuming chaos which rendered the future unpredictable, the past unrecallable and ordinary life so haphazard that people simply assumed that whatever could be imagined might come to pass [. . .].
Is that exaggerated? I’m not so sure. On the platform stands Mrs. Plauf, one of the unfortunate victims of the late train, and she accutely feels the threat. She’s at a strange platform simply trying to get home, and this train is going to get her there uncomfortably late at night. That is, if it comes at all.
It’s such a familiar event, the delayed train, yet Krasznahorkai goes underneath the surface and shows just how familiar the physical anxiety (that we tend to forget once the event is past) is as well, how a late train, particularly at night, takes someone out of their daily reality into some threatening altered reality. The concept is nice, and Krasznahorkai brings it out in exceptional prose, filled with long sentences and digressions that force the sentence to pivot and either tighten or loosen up, taking the familiar and bending it.
Anyway, the train does arrive, and the tension deflates a bit, though Krasznahorkai doesn’t let go of the bewilderment, doesn’t allow us to forget that something is amiss.
[. . .] they all relapsed into a jokey indifference, the dull insensibility that ensues when one has been forced to accept certain facts, which simply goes to show how people behave when, having failed, infuriatingly, to understand something, they try to suppress the fear caused by genuine shock to a system which seems to hvae been overtaken by chaos, the nerve-rackingly repeated instances of which may be met with nothing but withering sarcasm.
Mrs. Plauf, slightly relieved, but, as the passage above shows, still shocked, takes her seat on the train. It only gets worse. On the crowded train, one man in particular has his eye on her. I won’t go into details, but it’s a terrible train ride home for Mrs. Plauf — everyone is tired and on edge, and some things happen she can hardly believe — but it’s a superb section for the reader.
I began this review with this section of the book for a couple of reasons. Obviously, this is how the book begins, so it seemed appropriate (as usual) to start the book review there too. However, this train ride is not necessarily essential to the narrative we’re about to read. In fact, the narrative we’re about to read can be summarized almost more succinctly than the train ride. On its most simplistic level, this book is about a small Hungarian town that is put on edge when a tiny circus comes to visit. The circus’s main attraction is a giant, dead whale. The circus also brings with it a gang of rabble, drawn on by The Prince, a member of the circus crew who quietly speaks gibberish that is then translated by a factotum. The residents are afraid, but one in particular, Mrs. Eszter, sees an opportunity, provided there are hostilities.
Mrs. Eszter is truly an awful character, wonderfully rendered here. One of the first scenes with her shows her first having sex with the chief of police and then, when he’s gone, simply sleeping. We spend a few pages watching the room around her ugly form as she sleeps, completely out of control, completely out of character, a harmless human lump completely inert.
We’ve spent quite a bit of time in the book by now, and a lot of time in this review, without actually introducing two of the principal characters: György Eszter, Mrs. Eszter’s estranged husband who has retired completely from society, and Valuska, the “terminally lunatic” son of Mrs. Plau. We will follow Eszter and Valuska’s perspectives through the largest section of the book, “The Werckmeister Harmonies.”
Valuska is the village idiot. He’s known best for his emotional treatises on the sun and moon, for the beauty he finds in their order, and for the confidence he has in beauty and purpose. Eszter comes from the other side; he once directed the music school and has since completely given up on any idea of order or harmony. He and Valuska are unlikely friends, each trying, kindly, to convert the other.
There is so much to discuss, so best if we move along. The whale. It echoes Moby-Dick (my review here); it is unknowable, you can’t see it all at once, etc. That much is explicit. But even more, the whale brings to mind The Leviathan, Hobbes’s treatise on anarchy and central power. We know it’s coming; soon the rabble becomes uncontrollable (perhaps The Prince uttered a command — but The Prince doesn’t command) and the whole town is overtaken by anarchy. There’s a powerful passage where one of the rabble describes their chasing a man, his wife, and their daughter through the town. They delight when they see the scared man begin to doubt his fear (they wouldn’t do anything to him and his family), but they delight even more in not completely allowing his fear to subside. It’s awful, and reading it is a visceral experience of the highest kind.
The anarchy is inexplicable, even to those creating it: “however we looked for it, we could not find a fit object for our disgust and despair.” Much of the book is self-contradictory. It often baffled me, but not in a bad way; after all, being baffled is part of the point.
Beyond the ideas, beyond the long, fantastic sentences, there are the unforgettable images. I mentioned that terrible train ride, but we later walk home with Mrs. Plauf as she sees the dirty streets and a sign announcing the arrival of the whale. We looked briefly at Mrs. Eszter sleeping; we later see her eating brandy soaked cherries. That might not sound like much here, but in context it is certainly memorable.
Earlier this year, Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver won the Best Translated Book Award (my review of the book here). It’s an excellent book, quite wintry, that I highly recommend if you’re feeling too warm this summer (well, I strongly recommend it even if you aren’t). I’m happy to say I liked Jansson’s Fair Play (Rent spel, 1982; tr. from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, 2007) even more. It’s not necessarily summery, but if you’re feeling a bit chilly, this book will warm you up with its subtle love. Hmm, if I “highly” recommended The True Deceiver, I’d best “strongly” recommend Fair Play.
Fair Play concerns two old women, Jonna and Mari. They are best friends and for years have been happy to limit their society to each other. Each is an artist, and they live on a tiny island on the southern side of Finland; there’s a great line when they’re on the ocean during a fog and worry they’re going to end up in Estonia. When they venture out on it, the sea creates a great atmosphere and emphasizes their solidarity and remoteness. So does the apartment complex the two women live in; one lives on one side, the other lives on the other, but there’s a well tread path through the attic that lies in between.
The book is short — just over 100 pages — and it feels shorter still as it is separated into 17 very short chapters that stand fairly well alone, as much as the relationship’s many layers are revealed in each, whether they are redecorating or sitting down to watch movies.
“Mari,” she said, “are you unhappy that we don’t see people?”
“No, not anymore.”
“That’s good. I mean, if we did see them, what would it be like? Like always, exactly like always. Pointless chatter about inessentials. No composition, no guiding idea. No theme. Isn’t that right? [. . .]“
They’ve been together for a long time and have, so far, survived everything that has stood in the way of their continued friendship, including the time that Jonna shot the island gull:
“Typical,” Jonna said. “Of course you had to be the one to find it. Well, okay, I’m sorry. I shot it.” And she added, “At a hundred meters.”
That quote, besides introducing a long period of silence (they fight like old friends too), shows some of the book’s humor that Jansson injects on the sly in dialogue spoken on the side, the way Jonna and Mari express many of their emotions. In fact, sometimes the turmoil is not expressed at all; rather, we feel their discomfort by the way they look at the room around them.
This turmoil is an integral part of the book. On the one hand, their lives look stable, but in actuality their friendship is threatened from many sides. For one thing, they are getting older. It simply cannot last. Also, despite their age, they still have plans for life that might not include the other person. In each section, there is the potential for separation.
Strangely, despite this, the book is also a testament to stability and solidarity. There is certainly the sense that all will continue on as it has for years, and this too is implied subtly, though, impressively, at the same time the threat is implied.
They waited, but nothing more happened.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s “Aphrodisiac” was originally published in the July 11 & 18, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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Wow! Though it has only been a few years since her last screenplay and last New Yorker short story (both in 2008), I had no idea that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was still writing! At 84, she’s had a long career. I know her best from her remarkable work with Merchant Ivory Productions (for which she won two well deserved Academy Awards; I think she should have won a third with Remains of the Day, or maybe not since the film’s ending just isn’t as good as the book’s) and her Booker Prize win (1975 for Heat and Dust, which I haven’t read (note I said “Booker Prize win” and not “Booker Prize winner” . . . ).
Despite all of that, I was a bit wary when I started ”Aphrodisiac.” Its setup — Kishen, a Cambridge graduate, returns to his home in India, determined to write a great novel about India, getting the integers right: “caste-ridden villagers, urban slum dwellers, landless laborers, as well as the indecently rich of commerce and industry” — felt a bit familiar, those integers more like clichés than elements necessary to tell a great story about India. It seems that often a story like the one Kishen wants to write comes along and its mission is to display India (or whatever other country that is often reduced to familiar images) rather than really tell a unique story set there. It reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon that showed a bunch of people on a New York street, some walking, some looking out their windows, each thinking something along these lines: “And right then I knew: I had one hell of a story, and I was going to tell it!”
Thankfully, though there is a bit of the struggle of the boy educated in the West trying to adapt to his life in the East, this story goes somewhere else and gets much more intimate. It’s set in India, but there is much more here about human nature.
So, Kishen has returned home, and he wants to write, but he doesn’t know what. In Kishen’s absence, his older brother, Shiv, has married Naina. It wasn’t an arranged marriage; “Kishen’s mother was too modern to arrange marriages for her sons.” You may have guessed it, but Naina (and her friends) inspire Kishen’s first successful jabs at writing: “You should write it down!” the girls exclaimed — and, at their urging, he began to do so.” Soon he was writing a weekly column for a magazine. It’s not what he dreamed, but it’s keeping him around.
And this is where the story gets interesting for me. He wants to go back to Cambridge, has wanted that since he left there. But “she happened: his sister-in-law, Naina.” The story gives no reason why Kishen should be at all attracted to Naina, but he is, and we get the sense that, if asked, he couldn’t come up with one thing that made him give up all other things in order to remain in the same household as Naina. Soon, she has her first and then second child. They are much older, and if looks were ever the reason he felt drawn to her they aren’t any more. To a degree, he feels repulsed by her, but he cannot leave.
As unreasonable as the story is, it is remarkably believable. Is it really an aphrodisiac the maid gives him? That seems like the only plausible explanation, but, of course, that can’t be true.
Today my blog is three years old, and I hope it keeps going for years to come. It has all been fun! Also, as of yesterday, there are 280 book reviews here, not including the weekly reflections on the fiction in The New Yorker (I still hope to add something similar for short stories published elsewhere, but finding the time . . .).
In an effort to personally revisit some of my favorite books (or, if not my favorites, books that have remained with me nonetheless), and to re-recommend them, I’ve decided to start a new monthly feature (or, at least, see if a new monthly feature fits here). It’s a simple list of five books worth reading or revisiting that were previously reviewed on The Mookse and the Gripes.
I’m going to try to recommend books that fit the month in some way (for example, most of the books on this July list emphasize the summer), but who knows? Links in the text are to the original post. Now, on to it.
- The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth (original review from July 4, 2008). This is not a summer book (it’s a crsip New England winter’s night followed by a painfully clear winter’s morning), but I’m including it here because it was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog, and Roth became in many ways the revving motor keeping this blog moving in its early days. It is still my favorite Philip Roth book.
- The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides (original review from July 11, 2008). Now thisis a summer book. Eugenides makes you feel the sticky heat as he tells this wonderful, awful tale. If you’ve only read Middlesex, I’d say you haven’t read Eugenides’ best.
- The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (original review from February 8, 2009). I’m sure most people reading this post have read this book (right?). But I can’t help but include it because, again, this book just emphasizes the summer: the wind blowing through the room, the lawn parties, the swimming pool. Plus, it’s a book that can be read every summer and never wear out.
- A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr (original review from March 8, 2009). Ahh, this is a lovely, peaceful book about a summer month in the country. A World War I veteran is called to restore a recently uncovered medieval judgment painting in a church in Oxgodby.
- The Halfway House, by Guillermo Rosales (original review from May 17, 2009). Not a feel good summer book, but the empty heat of Miami is omnipresent in this quasi-autobiographical book about a highly literate Cuban revolutionary (a “double exile”) who spends time in a decrepit halfway house ran by abusive manager. It’s a cruel book, and one that not everyone will like, but I think its discomfort nicely done.