Well, let's start with a couple of good things about Alan Bennett.
In an age where many celebrated writers lost (or never had) the gift of synthesis, MWell, let's start with a couple of good things about Alan Bennett.
In an age where many celebrated writers lost (or never had) the gift of synthesis, Mr Bennett delivered to his readers a novel of 124 pages. A tiny book that is perfect for filling a winter-coat pocket.
Besides, Mr Bennett wrote a novel that everybody could read. Let's face it. "The Uncommon Reader" may please the elderly and the youngster, grandmas and grandsons. It is witty without being cerebral.
There is a vague fairytale flavour that I enjoyed. It is something that reminded me "The BFG" by Roald Dahl. Her Majesty the Queen, I suppose. And I was also thinking to another paper monarch, the less known "King Matt the First". Plus, we have a David Sedaris-like character named Nelson that plays the book-elf for a while.
And yet now that I'm done with this novel, I have a bittersweet feeling for it. While the first part of "The Uncommon Reader" is highly enjoyable and a little modern classic by itself, the second part doesn't have the same charm. I think it would have been important keeping the same quality in such a tiny novel. Anyway, this book made my commuting mornings in Oxfordshire better. ...more
I never like giving five stars to a book. There is something of over enthusiastic in giving the highest marking to any work of art. I am definitely noI never like giving five stars to a book. There is something of over enthusiastic in giving the highest marking to any work of art. I am definitely not a naively optimist person. Besides, I do indulge on excessive criticism.
But it's time to be honest. Therefore, hands up! I'm defeated. "Engineers of the Soul" won. And Frank Westerman's writing style won me over.
Back on December 2011 I had never heard about this book and its author. The only Dutch journalist familiar to me (after a semester spent studying journalism in the Netherlands on 2008) was Geert Mak whose European travelogue I enjoyed but whose book on the Galata bridge in Istanbul left me lukewarm.
Then my girlfriend and I had the chance of hosting Elke from Brussels and our guest introduced us to some brilliant conversations, tasty food and a handful of Dutch and Belgian novelists, among them Mr Westerman and his work over Soviet-time novelists, this book.
Well, actually calling Engineers of the Soul a book about Soviet writers is not making any justice to what Westerman managed to accomplish here: a fascinating work which combines literary criticism with travelogue writing and social history of the USSR with reporting on the Russia of early 2000s. And much more. All balanced in a perfect way and providing very convincing insights on what Westerman aimed to reach and why he wanted to get it, which is what seem to lack in the books written by his countryman Mak.
I particularly liked the passion behind and beyond this book. Westerman hasn't just done his reporter homework on behalf of the NRC Handelsblad ("our intellectual newspaper" quoting one of my Dutch professors years ago). Quite the reverse! The author here is very able to engross the readers on his investigation on how to Soviet power, censorship and socialist expectations influenced the literary production of a handful of prominent Russian writers between the 1930s and the 1950s.
Those who have a fair knowledge of Russian literature of the last century can find names they already know like those of Babel, Platonov, Pasternak, Shokolov and a focus on the influential and controversial role played by Gorki in the whole Soviet literary movement. But it's while talking of supposedly minor socialist novelists like that Paustovsky the book starts from and ends with that Engineers of the Soul displays its amazing qualities.
The fact is that in the early USSR there were ranks over ranks of either brilliant or mediocre novelists who were pretty much forced to write about the joy of canalization, the beauty of dams, the touching struggle of "volunteers", the technological achievements of the socialist motherland to please Lenin and then Stalin. These novelists were controlled, checked, somehow tyrannized by a system and a network of informers whose could not accept supposedly decadent, romantic, foreign-like novels coming out from the pens of its most known writers.
To put it straight: "Boy meets tractor" was properly Soviet, "Boy meets girl" was surely capitalist while "Boy meets girl, they meet tractor" could have been alright but also a Trotzkyist plot. The girl coming before the tractor? Come on, tovarisch! That looks a little suspectful. Besides, who could have said whether the girl was a foreign agent therefore ready to weaken and corrupt the boy while sabotaging the tractor?
And because the stress of any given novel had to be put on a very specific range of topics, many writers started to flirt with hydrography, metallurgy, engineering. Novelists, poets and journalists were invited to collective literary expeditions with the goal to embellish the construction of the nth canal or dam built to accomplish ambitious and unrealistic plans.
Words like "cement", "dam", "steel", "turbine" and - of course - "tractor" found their way on the titles of thousand of ideological bestsellers published in the USSR before and after World War II. This book tries to understand why this happened on such a wide scale and who among the socialist-friendly novelists tried to escape from the industrial cliche, quite often losing fame, reputation, a nice dacha and - accidentally - his own life or mental sanity in the process.
Westerman mentions banned poets and novelists of the period like Akhmatova or Mandelstam (but not Bulgakov!) and doesn't forget a famous ex-pat like Solzhenitsyn but does prefer to tell the stories of other people. The so-called "engineers of the soul" are the authors who joined (sometimes despite themselves) the socialist club before falling into sudden disgrace. Hence we have plenty of poignant pages dedicated to the misfortunes of Platonov, Pasternak, Babel and the book-hero, the controversial Konstantin Paustovsky.
Just don't look at this book as a mere history of the Soviet literature, because Westerman travels through the country on his own looking for the documents he needs and the places portrayed by those socialist novelists. It's these visits to Stalingrad/Volgograd dams system, to the Russian Film Institute or to the forgotten White Sea Canal that I appreciated the most.
The nadir of the whole book is the long literary trip taken by its author on the footsteps of Paustovsky as far as Turkmenistan during the heydays of former communist politician (and electrical engineer) creative dictator Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov. There on the salty desert shores of the mysterious bay of Kara Bogaz, Westerman finds many of the answers he looks for while new questions arise.
This book has a rare gift: it's magic - a magical and sour realism - and it will always keep a special place on any future bookshelves of mine....more
When a friend of mine heard that I was reading a book titled "Mr Norris Changes Trains", the first thing he said was "Chuck, I suppose?".
Poor Christop When a friend of mine heard that I was reading a book titled "Mr Norris Changes Trains", the first thing he said was "Chuck, I suppose?".
Poor Christopher Isherwood! Had he known about the main badass character of Walker Texas Ranger kicking his Arthur Norris out of common knowledge, I'm sure he would have chosen to call him differently. By the way, popular culture betrayed Isherwood twice here. Just tell a female friend of yours what given name the surname "Bradshaw" (the main narrator of this novel) brings to her mind and there you are: Carrie.
Does this ring a bell? I sincerely hope it doesn't. But I'm afraid it does. Now, don't deny it!
Anyways, let's put first and second names aside for a moment. And let's forget that - Chuck or not Chuck - "Mr Norris Changes Trains" is a very unfortunate title. If I could rechristen this book, I would call it "The Fairy Godfather" (sorry Daniel Pennac) or, on a more silly note, "The Wig and the Moustache". But Mr Isherwood thought it otherwise.
This is an odd novel. Here we have a book which is at the same time a relic from the past and something modern. Whereas Arthur Norris' look, speech and manners wouldn't displease Thackeray, the little Isherwood tells us about the foreign correspondent Helen Pratt is enough to make a Orianna Fallaci or a Katie Adie out of her.
This contrast is just the effect Isherwood wants. For "Mr Norris Changes Trains" is set in a very well-defined place and moment of recent history: Berlin in the mid-thirties. That is precisely when Hitler seized power tightening his grip on a whole nation and - quite soon - changing for worse Europe as we knew it. And that Berlin was caught between the carefree hedonism of its cabarets (heirloom of the 1920s) and an economic and political crisis which quite helped the Nazis to kidnap Germany and throw it to the dogs.
Isherwood is masterful in writing: no doubt about this. And where he excels is in Mr Norris himself. This affected Barry Lyndonesque man with more than a touch of effeminacy and seeking for masochistic pleasures is a marvelous creation. Far less successful is how the British author writes about Mr Norris' business between Paris and Berlin: plotting and intrigues are definitely something Graham Greene is more apt to work on than his compatriot. Isherwood tries to tell us more about German communists but he somehow fails to be very convincing in that respect.
Nevertheless, this is a good and enjoyable novel, if only for Arthur Norris' antics. I would have liked Isherwood saying more about Berlin in the 1930s but the German capital stands pretty much in the background here with the exception of a chapter or two. I guess how I should pick up "Goodbye Berlin" by the same author or try the earlier "Berlin Stories" cooked up by Robert Walser to get more of what I want. ...more
What I like the most in Graham Greene it's his capacity to take a snapshot of certain historical periods and milieu in the exact place and moment in wWhat I like the most in Graham Greene it's his capacity to take a snapshot of certain historical periods and milieu in the exact place and moment in which they were taking shape.
Come on, make up your choice. You can pick "Brighton Rock" (England immediately before WWII) and "The Third Man" (Vienna immediately after WWII) or "The Ministry of Fear" and "The End of The Affair" (both London during WWII) and you will always get a thrilling plot, a masterful writing style and a convincing setting.
Let's face it: Greene had the gift of being there "live". He had the right timing from the very beginning of his process of artistic creation. I mean, Greene was of not only writing about things he knew quite well in first person, but had the talent to put them on paper exactly when and where they could have likely happened. And this process required an extraordinary and almost journalistic ability in setting the scene for realistic and contemporary stories. It's no coincidence that most of Greene's novels or so called "entertainments" were already on the big screen in a few years time.
Moreover, what Greene wrote have not lost its power today. Language and countries could have changed in the meantime (people are rather "busy" than "engaged"), but when I pick up a book by GG I know that it's going to carry me backwards in a specific time and place. I'm not reading a story or history, I'm in that story and history. To cut it short: Mr Greene was the greatest reporter of fiction. What this author wrote sixty years or seventy years ago will never be outworn.
"The Quiet American" makes no exception to this pattern. Here we have Vietnam in the 1950s when Frenchmen were still struggling to save their colony from the advance of the Vietminh. Paris was actually fighthing that conflict with a strong contribution of black people (Senegalese forces) not despising the occasional napalm over villages and bragging about victories to the foreign press. Later on, the Americans would have followed pretty much the same scheme having to cope with the more challenging Vietcong guerrilla.
In this early Vietnamese war, Greene puts Fowler, an expert and disillusioned British war correspondent, and Pyle, a younger apple pie-bred American leading an unclear business on behalf of the US government. These two will make the story. With Phuong, a Vietnamese girl perpetually offering pipes to her two eligible men, acting as tapestry and plunder. Pyle claims to love her. Fowler simply claims her.
But nothing is what it seems with Graham Greene. And the sentimental, idealistic, apparently innocuous, Quiet American Pyle who keeps on quoting his favourite book, dreaming about democracy and walking his dog will bring hard cheese on Saigon and the Briton, prefiguring the US involvement on a far larger scale. Which is something that Greene was able to smell in the Indochinese air already in 1955.
"The Quiet American" has its soft spots, of course, but they are not going to be mentioned here: too irrelevant they are. This novel made me think and wonder as no other book recently did and I will risk no harm to it....more