A quarter of the way through this book, I was ready to throw it across the room. I'm glad I didn't.
The charmless and self-obsessed David pursues Victo...moreA quarter of the way through this book, I was ready to throw it across the room. I'm glad I didn't.
The charmless and self-obsessed David pursues Victoria through the streets of Paris for four hours, forgetting about his daughter's birthday party and losing her present along the way. Rather than call the police, Victoria agrees to meet him in London, where they indulge in one of the most tedious conversations ever recorded between two human beings. They discuss architecture and politics, rather than comment on the only remarkable aspect of dinner: the fact that either their table keeps changing size or that Victoria has extendible arms, such that at one moment they can barely touch their fingers across the table and the next Victoria is able to spoon-feed David without leaving her seat.
David talks like a written submission to the general assembly of the Socialist Workers' Party, while Victoria's conversation resembles a press release from the Institute of Directors. David also tells her about his plans for houses on rails, whereby residents will wake up to find their next-door neighbours' barbecue outside their patio door while their lawnmower is now in their other neighbour's garden along with the kids' bicycles and the koi carp. For all her business acumen, Victoria fails to laugh out loud at this idiotic scheme, sealing their relationship.
By the end of dinner, each of them is so smitten at having found someone who can listen to them without chewing their leg off that they repair to David's hotel, where they rut like accountants for four hours.
…and then the story picks up, becoming an existentialist political thriller in the old French style. David's thoroughly dislikeable, self-obsessed, whining neuroticism carries us through a tale of sexual obsession that destroys both characters. It still falls down on the dialogue, which reads like carefully prepared statements, and on the implausibility of Victoria falling so heavily for someone as pompous as David. The running theme of David's corruption by Victoria's capitalist morals underpins the story, but this is balanced by his strange sexual dysfunction: he can't reach orgasm. Victoria represents the alluring corruption of capitalism: David finally achieves release at the moment he completely succumbs morally, and in that moment he becomes unable to save Victoria.
'The Victoria System' represents the dance between opposites in French political life: David is a builder and Victoria a destroyer, and the antagonism between left and right is actually what keeps both alive. In that sense 'The Victoria System' is a political allegory in the best tradition of Sartre and Camus. (less)
There's a lot to be said for this book, but it's desperately flawed. Clearly we're supposed to learn about protagonist Johnny through his friends and...moreThere's a lot to be said for this book, but it's desperately flawed. Clearly we're supposed to learn about protagonist Johnny through his friends and family rather than directly, but he is too enigmatic to uderstand without a more direct narrative style. So he's arrogant, shy, confident, reserved, manipulative and weak whenever the plot requires him to be any of those things, without regard to the glaring inconsistencies of those positions. (less)
For all the praise it's received, Story Of A Secret State isn't an action-packed read. Karski was more of an administrator in the Polish underground t...moreFor all the praise it's received, Story Of A Secret State isn't an action-packed read. Karski was more of an administrator in the Polish underground than a fighter, so anyone looking for stories about raids, sabotage and armed resistance might be a little disappointed. Also, the book is a reprint of what he wrote in 1943-44, so it lacks the perspective that comes from our fuller knowledge of events that only came to light after the war. Most obviously, he only has the haziest notion of how fortuitous his escape from the Russians was, since most of those who stayed became victims of the Katyn massacre.
But Karski's account is a vital document that reveals just how vigorously the Poles resisted the Nazis - a story that became lost as Poland was subsumed into the Soviet sphere after the war and all stories of non-Communist resistance were suppressed. For sure, his account is coloured by his patriotism, but the story he tells is real enough.
Least engaging are the accounts of how the Polish state reorganised itself into an underground operation, because the details of administration were more interesting to his wartime readers than to us now. The best stories are of his early trials, including his capture by and escape from the Gestapo while trying to reach France via Slovakia, and his account of the Jewish ghetto and an undercover visit to a death camp.
Within that context, Karski's quiet heroism makes for a vital tale of one of the less well-known areas of the war in Europe.(less)
Tomboy is a self-indulgent, smug exercise in faux-intellectual writing that is all method and no content. Meinecke claims to be "sampling words and te...moreTomboy is a self-indulgent, smug exercise in faux-intellectual writing that is all method and no content. Meinecke claims to be "sampling words and texts the way a disc jockey samples music", but that has no value unless it creates something worthwhile. Sadly, in Tomboy style is an end in itself. And it's not done very well.
Considering Meinecke's high intellectual purpose, his style is crude and unsophisticated. The only weapon in his writing armoury is the subordinate clause, in which nearly every sentence, insofar as he writes sentences, contains, rather like the sentence you are reading now, several diversions commenting on the content of the sentence - ideally with brief, unclear cultural or intellectual references - such that, by the end of the sentence, if you ever get to the end, and by this point you're probably wondering whether you should bother, you realise that the writer hasn't moved forward but instead, rather like a freshman trying too hard to impress his tutor with his first essay - and who hasn't done that? - simply gone round in circles.
At times Tomboy reads like a parody of 60s and 70s books that wore their intellectual references on their sleeves, or of cheap pulp fiction where inept writers tried to give readers essential information in asides and afterthoughts. Dan Brown does this in The Da Vinci Code, where Langdon drives around Paris thinking to himself about what the landmarks are and how they are relevant to the story.
If you want intellectual references, Umberto Eco does it better. If you want literary sampling, "spinning seemingly disparate tunes into a single, glowing melody" (as the blurb says), try David Peace. (less)