Friday, January 30, 2009

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushdie

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushdie
2008, 350 pp

A new Salman Rushdie book is always worth attention, but even the staunchest Rushdie fan must admit that The Enchantress of Florence is a comparatively minor affair. The framing device concerns a mysterious traveler and magician who appears at the court of Akbar the Great, the Mughal Emperor, and claims to be his uncle. The bulk of the book consists of the story this magician tells to Akbar, and at times stories within the story, or even stories within the stories within the stories. And that's pretty much the book: a lot of clever little stories tenuously linked together without much plot driving the whole production forward. It is impossible to resist Rushdie's enthusiasm for the subject, but in reading it, you get the distinct impression that Rushdie just really wants to tell you all the neat things he's read about the late fifteenth century.
And indeed there are a lot of neat things. As Rushdie stresses in interviews, most of the really ridiculous stuff in the book actually happened. The bit about Shah Ismail I making Shaybani Khan's skull into a jewelled goblet is true, as is the bit about Emperor Humayun dying from falling down the stairs in his library. Vlad Dracul makes a pretty accurate appearance. And so on. Rushdie's prose is, as ever, entertaining and lively, and he has a great deal of fun describing the outlandish people and places which populate the story. There's several excellent bits of fun with Akbar's name (Akbar means "the Great," so you can see how being called Akbar the Great and shouting Allahu Akbar can make for some good jokes) and some decent ruminations on history and love and suchlike.

However. There is no central character for the us to care about, and by its very nature the framing story dictates that we already know the outcome of the story being framed. By the end of the book we know who the mysterious traveler is, but not why he showed up, nor do we much care. His fate is never particularly resolved. This (and the habit of featuring characters who do not really exist or are really someone else, etc) also prevents Rushdie from developing any meaningful human relationships. The strongest part of the book is the section about two-thirds of the way in which involves philandering Niccolo Machiavelli's relationship with his beleaguered wife. Here Rushdie's talent for understanding the depths of unhappy relationships finally turns up, and the pages fly past.

The Enchantress of Florence is a good two hundred pages shorter than Midnight's Children and it shows. The lengthy digressions (which granted, got a bit too lengthy at times) are mainly absent, and in all the book feels much smaller than a sweeping epic about the Renaissance and the Mughals ought to feel. It is further padded out by startlingly incongruous and self-consciously modern dialogues which recycle rather familiar (and disappointingly unoriginal) ideas from Camus and Richard Dawkins.

A Rushdie Novel is a particular thing with particular conventions. He is almost a genre in himself, and while The Enchantress of Florence is a solid entry in the romance/adventure subdivision of the historical novel genre, it is a pretty minor work in the Rushdie corpus.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
1997, 340 pp

On the very first page of Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize winner, the inventiveness of her language reaches out and beats you over the head. The cover of the book is crawling with praise from John Updike about an entirely unique voice, and if anything Updike is guilty here of understatement. The God of Small Things is almost relentlessly devoid of cliché, both in content and in style. It contains similes like nothing you have ever seen. In the Kerala of Arundhati Roy, blood “spills out like a secret,” churches “swell like a throat,” insects “appear like ideas,” and insanity “hovers close like a waiter at an expensive restaurant.” As a teenager, I once had the distinct misfortune to read the following sentence: “His brows knotted into a furious knot.” Observe the skill with which Roy avoids this disaster and turns a tired cliché into a starting visual: “A man with a red flag and a face like a knot.” Even cloud descriptions, which at times seem to this reviewer as tiresome and obligatory in novels as Frank Capra films at Christmas, are made fresh in Roy’s deft prose. In her world, clouds are “like substandard mattress-stuffing” and the rain from them falls continuously, which she manages to turn into a splendid metaphor for memory which “bombs a still, tea-colored mind” just as the rain pulverizes the tranquil surface of a pond. Roy is almost distressingly hyper-aware of details and is particularly skilled at conveying them with swift literary economy. I am slightly terrified by the idea that somewhere right now Arundhati Roy is observing things in this kind of detail.

Aside from the inventive similes, Roy has an interesting habit of combining two words into one, usually making a noun or verb inextricable from an otherwise invisible adjective. Stephen King used to do this sort of thing as well, but with his particular brand of down-home Americana which originated words like “lunchstink.” It’s a useful way for those of us who never made it past the words “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead” feel terribly Modernist. For Roy, the words are most often related to colors or sensations, and add to the general impression that the narrative voice is one derived from the consciousness of her seven-year-old protagonists. In a trick shamelessly stolen from Martin Amis’s review of an Iris Murdoch book, I made notes of these words as I read and an aggregate of them indeed provides a decent impression of the book as a whole:

Dustgreen mossgreen oversmiling sariflapping goldringed softsounds dullthudding thunderdarkness suddenshudder soapslippery sourmetal oldfood fallingoff steelshrill carbreeze daymoon slipperoily feverbutton dinnerfull sleepsmile chromebumpered sharksmile greenehat brittlewhite deepswimming longago deepblue crumbleblack

Her narrative voice, as I’ve mentioned, is strongly flavored with the precocious wide-eyed youth of her main characters, and (quite reminiscent of Salman Rushdie) is given to clever wordplay combining English and Malayalam and her own invented terms into recurring, slightly childlike phrases which become attached to people, places, and ideas and follow them through the novel. Once she settles on a clever name or description for someone or something, the reader can rest assured that this description will recur again and again. Fortunately, it allows Roy to fine-tune an idea, so that the grammatically annoying “kind school teacher (that sometimes slapped)” on page 165 can gratifyingly cease to be the object of a relative clause and become its subject (“who sometimes slapped”) on page 237. To some degree this habit probably owes its origin to Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” and “swift-footed Achilles” which used to provide handy iambic fillers and memory aids to the aoidos, but which also turn up in most magical realist literature—Salman Rushdie in particular.

Rather like Midnight’s Children, Roy’s wordplay eventually overstays its welcome, and since her plot is a sort of clockwork unraveling of a single day rather than a broad national epic, The God of Small Things starts to feel a bit long two hundred pages sooner than Midnight’s Children did. You know by the second chapter that a certain character is going to drown; two hundred pages later you rather wish she’d just get on with it already.

There are a few other interesting parallels to Midnight’s Children: a little white girl is an important plot catalyst, there is an important pickle factory, noses and movies both move the plot along. The narrator, with the benefit of hindsight, is constantly giving cryptic allusions to what is going to happen, before annoyingly doubling back to tell something which happened earlier. There are also thematic similarities: The God of Small Things is essentially a heartbreaking meditation on Rushdie’s point that “children are vessels into which adults pour their poison.”

There are important differences as well. While Rushdie’s book is an exultant, invigorating, energetic, magical trip through a half-century of Indian history, The God of Small Things is the bitter story of the destruction of a family. Roy herself sums it up well: “They tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much.” It is a story of love and passion in conflict with tradition, religion, and superstition (those artificial tyrants of the mind) and the way in which that conflict destroys people. The uncoiling structure of the novel allows cause and effect to reveal themselves in alternating, increasingly complicated patterns until, upon putting down the book, you attempt to piece the entire story together and then are struck by the sense that you really ought to go back and read the beginning again. It is the sort of book which is even more powerful and sad the second time around, when the reader can observe the hopeless tragedy of the characters, rather than be pulled along by the clockwork mechanisms of their misfortunes.

Although remarkable in its structure and its language, it is not a perfect book. As I’ve already mentioned, it does slightly go on too long, and rather like with Midnight’s Children, if the narrator would simply tell us what’s happening rather than constantly hinting at what is going to happen, the book would probably be half as long. Even the clever similes get a bit tiresome: by the time someone has shock that “swells like phantom applause in an empty auditorium,” you get tired of trying to figure out what the hell that even means and start to wish she would just say “She was shocked.” By the thirty-ninth repetition of the children’s hairstyles, you want to fly to Kerala and shout at Arundhati Roy that you know perfectly well that one of them has his hair done like Elvis. Perhaps worst of all, when the climactic moment of the plot finally arrives after 237 pages of linguistic invention, Roy’s Thomas Edison similes fail her entirely and she offers up an unforgivable cliché: “She shattered like glass.”

Yet The God of Small Things is a fascinating novel. It is quite persuasive on the particulars of life in Kerala: the caste hatred, the prevalent Communists, the peculiar existence of the Syrian Christian community, and so forth. Roy is almost cruelly uncompromising in the construction of her characters’ misfortune and the bitter honesty with which she depicts the lives and beauty destroyed by petty bitterness and manmade (or more accurately, woman-made) hatred. It is the sort of story you cannot get out of your mind, and which as you contemplate it in its entirety and begin to appreciate the enormity of suffering it contains only becomes more remarkable.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann

Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann
English translation, 1925, 122 pp.

Thomas Mann won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, and this is probably his most widely-known work. He seems to have had a fascination with Goethe: he produced a rendition of Faust, wrote a novel called Lotte in Weimar which features Goethe and the events which led to his writing The Sorrows of Young Werther. Even Death in Venice is said to be partly inspired by Goethe's Marienbad Elegy, as well as by a similar experience in Mann's own life.

Death in Venice is the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a famed German author. He takes a walk one day in Munich and sees a strange red-haired man who unsettles him. (This murky red haired man reappears throughout: a gondolier, a hotel clerk, a customs agent. I am utterly baffled as to his significance, though some have speculated that he represents Dionysus, tormenting the scholar who rejects him). He decides spontaneously to take a vacation; after some vicissitudes and false starts, he ends up at the Grand Hotel des Bains in Venice. There he becomes obsessed with a beautiful Polish boy who he watches and eventually begins following around the city. It is slowly revealed that Venice is suffering from a cholera epidemic. Aschenbach never so much as speaks to the boy, and since the title is Death in Venice, I trust I will not reveal too much by reporting that finally Aschenbach thinks he sees the boy beckon to him, and as he stands up to follow, he dies suddenly.

This is a story which could only seem luminous and symbolic in Venice, that city of decaying grandeur. The stink of the canals, the beauty of the architecture, and the general sense of rotting decadence drapes atmosphere all over the novel. With the outbreak of the cholera epidemic, the city itself becomes diseased, and it is difficult to tell where the sickly-sweet smelling corruption outside ends and the corruption inside Aschenbach begins. Mann's prose is crisp and clear and surprisingly in an almost constant active voice, considering how little actual action takes place. There are occasional rhapsodic reflections on beauty and the artistic temperament studded with Greek gods and florid imagery, but they are memorable and beautiful. Consider, for example:

"Beauty alone is both lovely and visible at once; it is, mark me, the only form of the spiritual which we can receive through the senses. Else what would become of us if the divine, if reason and virtue and truth, should appear to us through the senses?"

And also:

"For one person loves and honors another so long as he cannot judge him, and desire is an evidence of incomplete knowledge."

Mann stated that his purpose in writing the book was to demonstration "passion as confusion and degradation". It is necessary not to identify too much with Aschenbach, but to step back from the arresting simplicity of his language to appreciate this point: by the end of the book, the highly regarded, famous writer dies alone, lusting after a young boy who ignores him. Yet Mann's attitude towards the novel's subject is difficult to ascertain. On the one hand, there is the motif of disease and corruption: as the cholera epidemic spreads, Venice empties and Aschenbach reflects that perhaps it will leave him and the boy alone together at last. Perhaps Mann is saying homosexuality and pedophilia are the disease, and he views the indulgence of such passion as degradation and undignified.

But then, the book is apparently inspired by Mann's own fascination with an 11 year old Polish boy he once saw at a hotel in Venice. His struggles with his own sexuality are well-documented, and the way in which the reader is made complicit through the beauty of Mann's descriptions. He has the lover's obsessive eye for detail, and anyone who has ever lusted hopeless after anyone else will find much familiarity in the persuasive eroticism of his descriptions. If Mann were describing a beautiful young woman, every reader who was once a young man would identify perfectly with Aschenbach. That he is describing a young boy makes the reader uncomfortably aware of the apparently universal attributes of unrequited love. Yet Aschenbach’s feelings towards the boy are quite complicated, since neither he nor the reader can never actually know what the boy thinks of him. It is quite possible that the boy is utterly unaware of Aschenbach, who is in love (like so many people) with an ideal rather than a person. The ideal is what elevates the novel to great literature: the boy represents an image of classically perfect physical beauty (as we are often reminded with Aschenbach’s dreams of Greek gods and soliloquies to Phaedrus) and this beauty provokes frightening and intoxicating emotions in a man of pure intellect. The boy’s youth and vitality are more than a contrast to Aschenbach’s stagnation and ennui: they are a reproach to it. In the end, Aschenbach is certainly a human, sympathetic figure, however degraded he may end up, and his obsession with the boy is not portrayed as an ugly, perverse thing, but rather something which appears beautiful and life-affirming. When taken in context with the point about degradation, it is difficult to tell whether the appearance is misleading, or whether obsessive love makes the end of life bearable.

The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, by Emile Habiby

The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, by Emile Habiby
English translation, 1974, 192 pp.

Arabic literature does not feature many novels, and of those, perhaps only this one is meant as a comedy. Theories abound concerning the connections between the development of the novel and the rise of European Enlightenment humanism, capitalist production, and atomized social organization. These are many and fascinating, but have little explanatory power as to why Africa, India, and Latin America produce dozens of splendid novels, but the entire Arabic-speaking world very few. Bernard Lewis would argue that it is a symptom of Islam's failure to reconcile itself with modernity, though that explanation fails to address Turkish and Indian literature, or Arabic poetry. As to the comic point, the dark fatalist humor Habiby finds in the 1948 and 1967 disasters which befell his people (Habiby was a Palestinian communist journalist) strike this reviewer as almost, well, reminiscent of stereotypical Jewish humor. The titular "pessoptimist," for instance, is a combination of "pessimist" and "optimist" and refers to Saeed's persistent belief that no matter what disaster befalls him, an even greater one was averted. I think Mel Brooks did this gag at one point.

The Secret Life of Saeed is billed as an ironic social commentary, plainly modeled on Voltaire's Candide to the extent that the parallel is made openly in one chapter. Saeed is a dimwitted Palestinian who wanders listlessly through short, surreally -titled chapters in what appears to be the timeless literary device of using a convenient idiot to demonstrate the tragedy of sweeping historical events. Indeed, this device is so timeless that during the chapters which actually feature some social satire, the echoes of virtually every satirist since Jonathan Swift become so loud that the misfortunes of Saeed do not seem specific to the unique sufferings of the Palestinian people, but instead appear essentially interchangeable with something Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller might have produced on a particularly unambitious day. This is not the story of the depredations the Palestinians have suffered, but rather about the absurdity of living in a modern state.

The novel is divided into three sections, each named for the woman Saeed loves at the time. Of these the second is certainly the strongest. It features the actual bits of social satire, most of which is solid. The Israeli police demand that Saeed prove his furniture is not stolen, and he assures them that it, like himself, is property of the state. Saeed's demonstrations of loyalty are considered too conspicuous and he is thrown in jail for disloyalty. People going home are deported for being infiltrators. And so on. The first and third sections revolve more around Saeed's desperate love for a woman named Yuaad, and then her daughter (also, confusingly, named Yuaad, which I guess is fitting, since Yuaad means "once again"). These sections are the least concrete, most bewildering, and contain very little of the promised social satire. Twenty years pass unremarked. For thirty pages we (and Saeed) think the third Yuaad is actually the first Yuaad. And so forth. By the end, Saeed finds himself repeatedly sitting on top of a tall pillar (in what I desperately hope is an allusion to Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder), having befriended a man from space, who is not described and who serves only the murkiest role in the narrative.

It is difficult to tell how much is lost in translation. The book is difficult to follow: characters are often not named, confusingly referred to in different ways, and the events which give their names to chapters happen either peripherally or sometimes not at all. Times and places are bewilderingly and haphazardly conflated. Perhaps this is a deliberate and opaque choice by Habiby, or perhaps it is a failure of translation. There certainly are recurring themes of Palestinian identity, dispossession, and fatalism in the face of apparently endless and malicious history. The chapters are so brief, though, and the characters so ill-defined that Habiby never really develops an idea. It is clear that these themes exist, but I'm still not entirely certain what Habiby has to say about them. If anything, the Israelis in the book tend to be regular people serving a state which is absurd, and the Palestinians tend to be the ones who behave badly of their own free will. It's a peculiar little novel with a few clever conceits, but it will never be mentioned in the same breath as Catch-22.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Gargoyles, by Thomas Bernhard

Gargoyles, by Thomas Bernhard

English translation, 1967, 224 pp.

Thomas Bernhard was not a happy man, and it shows. He wrote about fourteen novels, several plays, and some poetry in his lifetime, most of it either critical of his native Austria or about nihilist suffering, or both. He suffered his entire life from a painful lung ailment, fought constantly against his country's right-wing nationalists and Nazi apologists, and eventually died in an assisted suicide. He left a provision in his will that none of his works were to be performed or published in Austria for the rest of the duration of their copyright.

Gargoyles is the story of a young science student who accompanies his father, a rural doctor, on his daily rounds through the gloomy, mountainous Austrian countryside. For seventy-five pages they meet a procession of grotesques: an innkeeper whose wife has been pointlessly murdered, an insane musical prodigy kept in a cage, a diabetic industrialist who lives alone in a house empty of people and possessions, an old woman dying slowly and alone whose children never visit. A miller has died, and his sons systematically break the necks of all the exotic birds in his collection, to stop the noise they make. The student (who narrates in first person) has strained relationships with his father and his sister, and his mother is dead. The landscape is bleak and austere, and we seem to be reading a catalog of suffering internal and external, received and transmitted. The only beacon of light is a persecuted Jewish intellectual who is friends with the doctor and who lends him philosophy books.

The last patient is Prince Saurau, the great landowner of the region, who lives in a high, gloomy castle overlooking the entire desolate region. The prince starts talking. He talks about a want-ad he placed in the local paper, and about interviewing three people for the position of castle steward. My goodness, you think, this chap certainly has been talking for a while. You put your finger in the book and flip ahead a few pages to see just how long this goes on. You flip some more pages. And some more. Finally (a mirage? you think) you find a paragraph break buried thirty pages deeper, and it exists only to mock you, inserting as it does only three words: "We stood still." Then the monologue resumes. The prince talks for 107 pages with perhaps two or three brief interruptions. He begins with fairly concrete reality (the job interviews, life in the castle) and gets increasingly philosophical till eventually he sounds like he's just spouting lunacy. Apparently this is classic Bernhard: reviews of his other novels The Loser, Concrete, and Correction all mention similar hundred-plus-page monologues. Occupying as it does over half the book, it is tempting to argue that the conventions of the novel are subverted to such an extent that Bernhard's work is an example of an entirely different art form. Granted, there are a few existing parallels: most obviously Samuel Beckett's Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnamable "trilogy" and with the first half of Notes from the Underground, but Bernhard is probably alone in how he slips casually and without warning into one hundred solid pages of dialogue within an otherwise first-person descriptive narrative.

This is not nearly the ordeal it sounds. Bernhard's prose is clear and evocative. Some of the prince's rambling is quite compelling (for instance, a passage in which the words flood and play are interwoven in contrapuntal opposition) and since there can be forty pages without a paragraph break, there is no obvious stopping place, so the reader is somewhat compelled to continue reading. The weight of words eventually becomes too much, though, and it is difficult to remember any startling or innovative insights in the prince's philosophizing. The book ends abruptly when the prince trails off: rather more with a whimper than a bang, or even a debriefing. I was sufficiently interested, though, that I intend to read at least one more of Bernhard's novels in an attempt to figure out just what the hell he's up to, or if he really just has endless contempt for the reader, for Austria, and for life in general.

The Avanti Book Review

Due to the persistent obsolescence of this platform, I am hereby unveiling a renovation project. Starting now I shall attempt to write a review of approximately 500 words on each book I read and to post it here. The intention is to foster conversation, practice industry-standard reviewing technique, and help myself remember what on earth I've been reading lately.

The Defense, by Vladimir Nabokov

English translation, 1964, 272 pp.

For a novel about a chess grandmaster, written by a notorious composer of chess problems, with a title derived from chess terminology, it is startling how little actual chess takes place in this book. Chess is the thematic anchor and supplies Nabokov with all manner of compelling imagery, but rather than a conventional story punctuated by dramatic, plot-furthering chess matches, the game functions as a mental preoccupation rather than a tangible activity. The titular Luzhin defense never even materializes, and we get the sense that it is not chess which drives Luzhin mad, but instead the emptiness of the parts of life without chess.

By far the most effective sections of the book are those which concern Luzhin's sad and lonely childhood. Nabokov is of course a consummate prose artist, and even in translation his skills are ostentatiously on display here: observe the economy with which he fills the background with a destructive extramarital affair, the tiny intimate details of interminable school recesses spent alone. When on the first page Nabokov describes "a swift country summer consisting in the main of three smells: lilac, new-mown hay, and dry leaves" the reader immediately recalls why he selected this slender volume off the shelves rather than a doorstopper by some cliche-ridden hack. I often find Nabokov's structural organization a bit loose and messy (and here is no exception), but he seems to have been utterly incapable of writing a boring sentence.

Most accounts of the book (including the dust-jacket blurb, and Nabokov's own introduction) bill the novel as an account of a gifted man driven mad by his genius, based a bit loosely on the German grandmaster Curt von Bardeleben, who Nabokov knew personally. It reads much more like an account of a man suffering from Asperger Syndrome, who takes refuge from an unhappy childhood in chess. Luzhin is not a normal boy before he discovers chess, nor is there any indication he would have lived a normal life without his chess obsession. It does not seem that it is chess which makes him unbalanced, but rather his psychological limitations which made him a chess genius.

If indeed the book is reducible to an idea, it seems to be about the inability of Luzhin (a quiet, sensitive person) to deal with the coarse realities of the world. His schoolmates are malicious thugs, his parents remote and self-absorbed, and once he envelops himself in a chess career, he faces financial ruin, unscrupulous management, and finally a well-meaning woman who thinks she knows what is best for him. Chess manages to see him through all but the last, when finally the world (interesting, the well-meaning but non-comprehending manifestation of it) overcomes his defenses. Without the protection of chess (the one thing which was genuinely his, and the one thing which defined him) he is destroyed. This is a variation on the genius-vs.-society theme which Nabokov has used elsewhere, though with the distance generated by Luzhin's obvious mental defects and objectivity of third-person narration. This last is an important point: rather than letting the unbalanced and misunderstood genius speak in his own (demented) voice as in Lolita, Luzhin is held up as an object for our consideration rather than making us identify with and become complicit in his cracked worldview. The Defense is, like any Nabokov novel, a beautiful work of art, but compared to his later output, it is a distinctly limited, mildly misdirected, vaguely unfocused production.