Labyrinths is a collection of short pieces by the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. It consists of around 30 abstruse short stories that Bor...moreLabyrinths is a collection of short pieces by the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. It consists of around 30 abstruse short stories that Borges calls “Fictions,” 10 literary essays, and a handful of “fables,” very short prose fantasias on literary topics. In all of these pieces, Borges serves up a heady intellectual brew. His fictions, which are less different from the literary essays than one might expect, have whimsical plots that are sometimes on the verge of pulp science fiction. With Borges, though, these plots are generally vehicles for exploring the big questions of philosophy: what is the nature of reality? How do we know what we know? What is the nature of time? And such like that.
Borges' M.O. is a little hard to explain. The way I picture it, Borges in any given tale will pluck at a loose thread in reality and he’ll keep yanking on it and yanking on it, watching the fabric of lived experience unravel with a placid, avuncular smile on his face. More lucidly, here's a book-cover blurb for Labyrinths:
"The groundbreaking trans-genre work of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) has been insinuating itself into the structure, stance, and very breath of world literature for well over half a century. Multi-layered, self-referential, elusive, and allusive writing is now frequently labeled Borgesian."
Well, that certainly sounds pretty awesome. How does it play out on the page? Here's an attempt at a summary of the first story of the volume, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”
"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"
Two friends discover an entry for a country called “Uqbar” in a single copy of a cheap encyclopedia set. The article mentions that the literature of Uqbar consists only of fantasies set in two imaginary regions, one of which is called Tlön. They look in vain for any other references to Uqbar, but some time later the narrator chances across Volume XI of the Encyclopedia of Tlön, which he learns from context is found on, or is perhaps another name for, the planet Orbus Tertius.
"Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy."
Exploration of the encyclopedia is a springboard to short descriptions of the theology, philosophy, and linguistics of Tlön. These are discusussions erudite and increasingly absurd:
"There are no nouns in Tlön's conjectural Ursprache, from which the 'present' languages and the dialects are derived: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value. For example: there is no word corresponding to the word 'moon,', but there is a verb which in English would be 'to moon' or 'to moonate.' 'The moon rose above the river' is hlor u fang axaxaxas mlo, or literally: 'upward behind the onstreaming it mooned.'
"The preceding applies to the languages of the southern hemisphere. In those of the northern hemisphere (on whose Ursprache there is very little data in the Eleventh Volume) the prime unit is not the verb, but the monosyllabic adjective. The noun is formed by an accumulation of adjectives. They do not say 'moon,' but rather 'round airy-light on dark' or 'pale-orange-of-the-sky' or any other such combination."
Philosophy on Tlön is of an extreme idealist bent – so much so, in fact, that belief that an object exists (for instance looking for a pencil that one believes should be there) is often enough to invoke that object into being.
So, that’s what we get in the main body of the story. Then, there is an afterward explaining that since the “article” was originally published, the author has been able to determine that the Tlön encyclopedia was a secret project commissioned by an eccentric American millionaire. Except that, as knowledge of the encyclopedia begins to spread, artifacts from the Tlön universe begin to manifest themselves on Earth, as people hope or believe them into reality.
Borges and his Postcursors
As you have gathered from the quotations, Borges’ style is professorial and erudite, the very embodiment of the classical man of letters. At one point Mrs.5000 asked me which story I was on, and I read her the first line: “The night of March 14, 1943, in an apartment in the Zeltnergasse of Prague, Jaromir Hladik, the author of the unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity, and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, had a dream of a long game of chess.”
“I don’t remember which one that is,” she said.
“Well,” I pointed out, “they all start kind of like that.” It's true.
In an essay called “Kafka and his Precursors,” Borges looks at works written before Kafka that treat what we would might call “Kafkaesque” elements. He makes the point – I can not tell if it is tongue-in-cheek or not – that we probably read these early works differently because of Kafka’s influence. Similarly, I think that for most people reading Kafka today, our reading of the work is influenced by later writers (including Borges) who were themselves influenced by Kafka; in practical terms, the arrow of influence points both backwards and forwards in time. It is hard for me not to read Borges in implicit comparison with later writers he influenced, specifically Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Jose Saramago. Those three are big influences on [my reading of] Borges.
I saved Labyrinths for the next-to-last Reading List book because I expected to revel in it. I knew the general sort of thing that Borges would be up to, and it sounded great. It's Multi-layered, self-referential, elusive, and allusive, for crying out loud! I mean, aren’t I the guy who invented the Forgotten Lands? That was clearly a Borges-inspired project, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Also, I really like a lot of Calvino, Eco, and Saramago. I knew that Labyrinths was a big favorite of Mrs.5000. I thought I’d be an ideal audience for Borges.
Michael5000 Lets Down the Team
Disappointing to relate, the fictions mostly just made me feel stupid. I spent a lot of time reading this short book, and much of that time was spent going back and trying to find the point where I had stopped absorbing the words. I fell asleep a few times. I was, dear reader, often kind of bored. I confess this gives me a real feeling of having let down the team, but there you have it. I may not be smart enough to take my Borges straight. Maybe I just need to come back and try it again when I’m a little older. (less)
This novel is the life story of Mr. Biswas, like his author a Trinidadian of East Indian descent. We get the entire story, from his inauspicious birth...more This novel is the life story of Mr. Biswas, like his author a Trinidadian of East Indian descent. We get the entire story, from his inauspicious birth and unlucky childhood to his premature death. Like all biography, therefore, A House for Mr. Biswas has a sad ending, but Naipaul softens the blow by letting us know from the first sentence that Mr. Biswas is going to die in the end, and reminding us periodically thereafter.
Mr. Biswas’ life unfolds in a series of more or less comic episodes: a slipshod education, an unintentional but somehow unavoidable marriage into a semi-dreadful family of fading backwoods gentility, a futile stretch of years as a failing village merchant, a period of debilitating depression, some lucky breaks that allow him to apply his talents to a job in the big city of Port-of-Spain, and, in the end, a handful of good years.
Mr. Biswas is intelligent and has intellectual leanings, but he is also deeply ignorant and barely able to figure sums. He reads philosophy, but only the same few books over and over. He can interpret the social rituals and interactions of the people around him with the finesse of an anthropologist, but can’t make himself behave around other people in a way that will smooth his own path through life. He sees how blind other people are to their self-destructive behavior, but that doesn’t stop him from indulging in his own. He exhibits sudden sporadic bravery, and also a craven reluctance to rock the boat in any way. He is loveable, until he does something horrifying; he is fairly unlikeable, until he shows remarkable kindness. He is a reprehensible father, but probably the one you would choose from among his peer group. He is, in short, an amazingly human fictional character. He reminds me of you! And me!
Location, Location, Location
Throughout his saga, Mr. Biswas is continually in search of a house. Everyplace he lives is more or less dreadful, through some combination of destitution, hostile neighbors, poor construction, isolation, crowding, and exposure to the savage Byzantine politics of his wife’s enormous family. It is a measure of his success in life and as a human being that his final house – and don’t worry, I’m not telling you anything you won’t learn on the first few pages – is considerably less dreadful than the other places that he has lived. His unwise purchase of that last house, at far too high a price, is a heroic achievement on the level of Odysseus making it home to Ithaca, or of Mr. Bloom making it home to Molly.
A House for Mr. Biswas is about a life lived in poverty. There is a lot of literature about life in poverty, and most of it focuses on the poverty. That’s cool, but Naipul’s emphasis is solidly on the life. This is, I think, a very conscious choice. Throughout the book, there are sly references to more stereotypical literatures of poverty. A friend of Mr. Biswas publishes despairing existential fables about, say, a poor man selling the winning lottery ticket to buy bread for his child. Mr. Biswas himself, a capable enough hack writer, is forever beginning but never able to finish an autobiographical story in which he would escape into a world of clichéd romance. Towards the end, the master narrative of classical Marxism is lampooned with gusto after it is ostentatiously taken up by a pompous brother-in-law. I don’t think that Naipul is trying to suggest that poverty is benign, or unimportant; just that the lives of poor people are fully experienced lives, shaped by but not reducible to their economic circumstances.
The book is also, as George Eliot would say, a “study of provincial life.” Mr. Biswas is very conscious that his existence is limited to a very finite set of opportunities available on the island of Trinidad, and that many of the options available to people in the books he reads don’t really apply to him. On the other hand, his Trinidad of the 1930s is a seemingly vast space with villages and towns scattering a landscape that seems vast to the people who live within it. One of the key moments of Mr. Biswas’ life comes when, in a gesture that somehow combines both his adventurous spirit and his tendency to fall into any comfortable groove, he decides – or lets it be decided for him – that he will take a bus north, to the city, to Port-of-Spain. Here, as during some of the time that he was a village shopkeeper, he will be estranged from his family by distance, and go for weeks and months without seeing them. And yet, Trinidad is (I eventually realized) only about the size of the county I grew up in, say 50 miles by 30. He is never more than a few hours by bus or bike from everyone he knows. But since this represents the entire world – Mr. Biswas believes, correctly, that he will never be able to leave Trinidad – it become global in scope, and the perceived social distances between places expands accordingly.
If you are still reading this far down, you are probably Mrs.5000
Human behavior is often shaped into absurd patterns by its institutional containers, and Naipul’s observations often have a remarkable echo of another 1961 novel, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Heller writes about men in a military encampment during a war, which for purposes of portraying the absurdity of human life is kind of shooting fish in a barrel. Naipul is no less painfully acute, or hilarious, in dissecting Trinidadian family dynamics. Late in the book, Mr. Biswas’ in-laws purchase a paradisiacal rural estate and run it briskly into the ground through a spectacular display of ineptitude, indecision, avarice, internecine jealously, failure to follow through, failure to cut losses, snobbery, inflexibility, and an array of preposterous attempts to get rich quick. It is painfully funny, and, oddly, more than a little reminiscent with the turf wars fought in Hellers’ bomber squadron. 1961 was, apparently, a good year for the absurdity of human nature.
Listen: I loved this book. It starts slow and looks like it’s going to be long, but like Mr. Biswas’ life, you end up wishing his story was a little longer. There’s not much in the book that is happens in a particularly dignified manner, but somehow Naipul creates dignity for his character (giving him the honorific "Mr." throughout instead of using his first name, even when he's still five years old, is one tool for this). Set largely in various forms of squalor and banality, the net effect of Mr. Biswas' story is kind of, well, beautiful. “Wow,” I said, putting the book down. “That was really beautiful.” I don’t know if I’ve ever said that about a book before.(less)
There’s a fine little epigram titled "On Some South African Novelists" that I’ve always remembered from the anthology of poetry we used in my college...moreThere’s a fine little epigram titled "On Some South African Novelists" that I’ve always remembered from the anthology of poetry we used in my college lit class.
You praise the firm restraint with which they write I'm with you there, of course: They use the snaffle and the curb all right, But where's the bloody horse?
Now that’s plenty clever. Never having really heard of any South African novelists, it was always hard to imagine which particular South African novelists were under discussion and whether it was a fair assessment, but I still enjoyed this snappy snark at the literary scene down at the Cape.
As I got into Cry, the Beloved Country, which is so far as I know the first South African novel I’ve read, I started to wonder if Alan Paton might be one of “them,” one of “some South African novelists.” Turns out, no. Roy Campbell, the fellow who wrote the zinger, was a South African himself, and presumably knew of quite a few South African writers and wasn’t just taking a potshot at the one big famous one. Also, he wrote his barb in 1930, and Cry, the Beloved Country wasn’t published until 1948, which is a bit of a giveaway.
Mind you, Cry, the Beloved Country is certainly a novel written with firm restraint. Its language is spare and simple, often using repetition for emphasis and effect. The characters speak Zulu, but the book is written in English, and Paton uses literal translation of idiom for… for… well, restraint. The stripped down vocabulary gives his characters considerable dignity. They do not tell each other to have a great day! – they say “go well and be well.” They do not make long speeches about the great tragedies that have been imposed on them; they say “this is a very heavy thing that has happened.” By keeping the language simple, Paton creates great emotional depth, like an artist with an inkpen can create a vast landscape with a relatively few simple lines.
So, he uses the snaffle and the curb all right. The horse, meanwhile, is a robust plot involving a linked set of family tragedies set against the deeply troubled society of South Africa in the 1940s. There is no missing-horse issue in Cry, the Beloved Country. What makes Paton’s work remarkable – and no doubt about it, this is an exceptional work of fiction – is that he manages to take plot material that could easily overcook into maudlin melodrama, or descend into crushing pessimism, and infuse it with an ample helping of joy, humor, and grace. How does he do it? Well, the firm restraint with which he writes helps, but there’s also a keenly observed humanity in all of his characters. They are a set of decent people trying to do well according to the rules of the society they were born into.
In this world, it is never easy to do well according to the rules of the society you are born into. You know it, I know it, and Alan Paton knew it.
"They come out of the Court, the white on one side, the black on the other, according to custom. But the young white man breaks the custom, and he and Msimangu help the old and broken man, one on each side of him. It is not often that such a custom is broken. It is only when there is a deep experience that such a custom is broken. The young man’s brow is set, and he looks fiercely before him. That is partly because it is a deep experience, and partly because of the custom that is being broken. For such a thing is not lightly done."
Paton’s characters are not Sunday-school constructs – everyone in the book has their flaws and their weaknesses on display – but on balance, they are people of goodwill, and this makes this a sad and challenging novel, yet ultimately a hopeful one. It culminates in a final few pages that unites the extremes of human hope and despair in a remarkable episode so understated that a careless reader might not even notice it was happening. Well, that’s firm restraint for you.
Cry, the Beloved Country, was strongly recommended by Mrs.5000 for this reading list. She did not, however, recommend it as light vacation reading. She was abundantly correct on both counts. (less)
If the title sounds clever and you're not sure why, it's a play on Rudyard Kipling's tale of "How the Leopard Got Its Spots." The answer to that quest...more If the title sounds clever and you're not sure why, it's a play on Rudyard Kipling's tale of "How the Leopard Got Its Spots." The answer to that question is mentioned in passing in this book: there is differentiation in the concentration of chemicals bathing the leopard's skin in utero. The universe also has spots, which is to say that there is some lumpiness (although not nearly so much as you would think from your day-to-day experience) in the cosmic stuff still spewing "away" (kind of) from the big bang. The question of where the spots came from turns out to be a little trickier for the universe than it is for the leopard. Let's just say that small quantum uncertainties within the first bizarrely small fraction of a second of the universe's existence could have galactic-scale implications a few trillion years down the road, and hope that we sound pretty smart and that there are no follow-up questions.
Any follow-up questions? No? Good.
The title is actually so clever that it got used even though it doesn't really match the book. Levin isn't especially interested in how the universe got its spots. What she's interested in is how observing the patterns in those spots might allow us, if we were stupendously lucky, to determine the shape of the universe and figure out whether it is finite or infinite, and if the latter how infinite. (Yeah, I know, "how infinite" seems a little dodgy. She explains it.) And even if we weren't that lucky, checking out the pattern of spots, particularly in the background microwave radiation that suffuses the cosmos, might at least allow us to weed out some theories and refine others about how this universe we live in works.
By "us," I of course mean brainy physics types.
By "background microwave radiation," I mean a concept in cosmology that Levin explains over the course of her book. She also explains such scary concepts as relativity -- special and general! -- dimensionality, topology, string theory, and chaos theory. There are probably plenty of books that try to explain these things, but I doubt any of them are as chatty as this one. Levin's book, couched as a series of letters to her mother, mixes and matches the concepts that underlie her work with personal stories about the decline and fall of a relationship, what it's like to commute back and forth between California and England, how she furnishes her new apartment, and the like. It is kind of weird, but if the point was to try to humanize theoretical physics and imply that it can be comprehended by ordinary folks with ordinary problems, it is actually kind of successful. The bits where Levin anguishes over whether she should get a new apartment or not have the added advantage of requiring very little effort, which lets you build up a good reading head of steam and get some momentum going for when she gets back to the point and ponders the implications of whether the universe is flat, positively curved, or negatively curved. Like I say, it's kind of weird, but it's also quite readable.
I know just enough about cosmology to know that this book is a bit out of date, but not enough to be able to put my finger on exactly how. But Levin knew when writing it in 2000 that it would have a fairly short shelf-life, and refers several times to the exciting new information that will be flooding in over the next couple of years from new satellite missions. Those new satellites are satellites of the past now, of course, and the flood of data that they provided has been fuel to the brisk growth in our astronomical knowledge in the last decade or so. Did you not know that astronomy was booming? It is! Concept for concept, it has probably been the most productive field of human inquiry over the last fifteen years or so.
Prognosis: How the Universe Got Its Spots is a pretty good book! I think everybody should make a good-faith effort to get their head around the basics of relativity and quantum physics, too. It's not like this stuff is particularly new and revolutionary, and it can't hurt to understand how the world works at a very basic level. Plus, it's interesting.
But the question at hand is, is Spots the right book for the job? Answer: it's not a bad pick, if you've got a copy available. If not, there are probably others, maybe newer ones, that could also do the trick. If you know of any really good ones, leave a pointer in the comments. The IAT readership craves ever to better understand the physical universe!(less)
I went to a lecture a few years ago where Ursula LeGuin, who doesn't flinch from speaking her mind, ripped into Wallace Stegner with vigor a...moreDisclaimer
I went to a lecture a few years ago where Ursula LeGuin, who doesn't flinch from speaking her mind, ripped into Wallace Stegner with vigor and elan. He had plagiarized Angle of Repose, she said, from the letters and memoirs of Mary Hallock Foote, a popular artist and novelist from the late nineteeth into the early twentieth centuries. It turns out that there’s quite a bit more to be said about that, but the accusation cast a modest shadow over the reading. Also, I forgot it was on the Reading List, listened to it on audiobook, and then felt like I should really eye-read it for Reading List purposes. Working my way through it twice in sixth months was perhaps a bit much.
The Plot, in a nutshell:
In the late 1800s, a woman who is passionate about the arts and intellectual life marries a mining engineer, and consequently must endure life in the mining districts of the Mountain West. Her dedication to her ideals gives her great strength, and also makes her extremely vulnerable. Stegner relates her story from within a first-person framing story that connects it thematically with social issues of the early-1970s present in which the book was written.
Tales of the Old West
What Stegner does best in Angle of Repose is invoke a picture of the American frontier that is delightfully free of conventional “Western” hokum. The fake West that everyone knows, erected by Hollywood on a foundation of pulp novels, is an isolated, almost hermetic place where everyone is a rugged individual, male of course, a restless straight-talker who has come out West to get away from the trappings of civilization. Now, there might have been some grain of truth to this nation-of-misfits mythology during the time of the fur trappers, perhaps. Maybe. But certainly, by the time of covered wagons and let alone by the time of locomotives, the West was being colonized by folks who were, most of ‘em, more or less able to function in the context of a community.
Stegner, who was immersed to the gills in Foote’s papers while he was writing, gives it to us straight. He shows, rightly, a West that is integrated hand-in-glove with the East, desperately reliant on Eastern markets, Eastern training and educational institutions, Eastern manufactured goods, and especially, especially, Eastern (and British and German) capital. Social connections, then as now, were maintained across the continent through writing and visits. And individuals were no more ruggedluy independent than was the region as a whole. If you weren’t a farmer – and no one is more tied into the global economy than is a farmer – you most likely had a job or a small business; the American West happened about a century too late for real rugged individualism. And although every town has a few people who think they want to get away from it all (Concord, Massachusetts, springs to mind), most people in the West were working hammer and tongs to bring the trappings of civilization out to their new home as soon as possible – preferably at a profit, of course. Angle of Repose gets this all wonderfully right, simply as the context in which its characters live. And interestingly, although Stegner’s novel is pretty much the literary apotheosis of the academic New Western History movement, he actually beat them to the punch by about a decade.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
Within this finely realized setting, Angle of Repose is a family drama. It’s about marriage, really. It’s about things like commitment and communication and compromise and all of the other elements that make family life joyful when things are going well, and hellish when they’re not.
A lot of people love this book. Like, a lot. When Ms. LeGuin was taking Stegner to task at her lecture, it made a few people in the audience cry. Here’s a quote from a very articulate but fairly representative reader review on GoodReads.com:
"Fiction moves me most when it’s most piercingly honest – when it reveals to me places in my heart that I’ve been afraid to recognize the existence of. Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose” examines the part of us that's reluctant to forgive and that cannot seem to learn how to forget. The book is hauntingly true and ruthlessly introspective and it left me, at times, gasping for breath at the beauty of its lyricism - it could serve well as a master class in honest writing." (User name: Scott Axsom)
It’s also worth mentioning that it won the Pulitzer and is widely considered one of the best American novels of the 1970s and that, despite this, it sold well.
Obviously I wouldn’t have let Mr. Axsom do the gushing if I planned on doing much gushing myself. I can’t really gush about Angle of Repose. I acknowledge that it is skillfully and knowledgeably written with strong characters and psychological verisimilitude. That’s certainly enough to make it a good book! But friends, as good books go, I’m afraid I found Angle of Repose just a bit – shall we say – dull. Not outright boring, mind you; just slower-moving than it ought to have been. It establishes the nature of its characters and their lives, and then marches them through a few too many repetitions of the same patterns. It’s good biography, but not great storytelling, and this is after all a novel. The central event of the book is backloaded so close to the end as to make the whole thing verge on a shaggy dog story, especially on the second reading.
Finally – and there’s really no getting around this – Angle of Repose has one of the worst final chapters that ever graced a good book. It takes place in the framing story, which limits the damage, but it is hackneyed and dumb and, even the second time I encountered it, it made me want to throw the book across the room. (The room in question happened to be a pizza parlor in rural Idaho with loud classic rock blaring from the jukebox. I can’t say what the locals would have made of my symbolic hurling of the 1971 Pulitzer. Cooler heads prevailed.)
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Angle of Repose: a very good, deeply flawed novel. Required reading for your History of the American West class, and strongly recommended if you think that cowboys played a critical role in U.S. History. If you’ve just got a hankering for Wallace Stegner, start instead with the equally good but less flawed Crossing to Safety, and see where things go from there.(less)
A.S. Byatt wrote Possession during the full flowering of postmodernism, whatever that was. Her book reflects that –ism’s frightened fascination with g...moreA.S. Byatt wrote Possession during the full flowering of postmodernism, whatever that was. Her book reflects that –ism’s frightened fascination with genre, and also its unwillingness to indulge in the art of storytelling without running up flags to show that the author is properly distrustful of Narrative, that naïve and reactionary old beast.
The self-referential semaphoring begins (before the beginning, even!) with the epigram, a long passage from Hawthorne: “When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude….” By the denouement, the signal flags are in profusion, flapping briskly in a grand literary storm that manages to be both an conspicuous external symbol of the characters’ interior emotional states and a whimsically blatant deux ex machine. From the last few dozen pages of the main text:
“And all’s well that ends well,” said Euan. “This feels like the ending of a Shakespearean comedy…” “Or like the unmasking at the end of a detective story.” (524)
Cropper decided to run for it…. “It’s no good,” the figure incredibly said. “You’re surrounded.” (539)
Euan said, “I’ve always wanted to say ‘You are surrounded.” “You said it very well,” said Cropper. (540)
Maud said, “We need the end of the story.” “There is no guarantee that that is what we shall find,” said Blackadder. “But we must look,” said Maud. (541)
No one ever quite exclaims that they feel like a character in a postmodern novel, but I bet that this was a temptation consciously resisted. Byatt realizes that she is writing within the context(s) of literary tradition(s), and she is bound and determined that you will realize that she realizes it. But that was, or is, the post-modern condition for you.
A Plot Summary, Despite What I Was Taught in College
Possession is put together as a collection of texts that cumulatively tell two related tales. The primary and framing story is about a community of literary scholars, some of whom are specialists in the fictional major Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash and some of whom study the equally fictional but less prominent Christabel LaMotte. As the novel proceeds, they uncover increasingly intriguing evidence of a previously unknown personal connection between their subjects. There is an intense rivalry among the scholars for the new-found documents, for access to the knowledge they reveal, and for the right to control interpretation of the new evidence. At the same time, they are all forced to reinterpret not only the lives and work of their literary heroes, but also their own careers and beliefs, in the light of the new evidence.
(And this is an interesting scenario, because it makes manifest the quiet struggles for information and for primacy of knowledge and for the right to impose our own interpretation of events, and the struggle to maintain a sense of continuity amid the chaos of life’s events, that everybody goes through every day. Does Byatt exploit this metaphor to its maximum effect? Probably not. But then, who could?)
The second tale, which is slowly excavated through the progress of the first, is that of the relationship between Ash and LaMotte. This is much the simpler story, but it is not without its surprises.
Structure and the Unwritten Law
The “pastiche” (to use the approved postmodern term) of texts that carry this tale is anchored by straightforward fictional prose that is more or less of the campus comedy genre. Over this narrative bedrock is layered “simulacra” (to use the approved postmodern term) of historical letters, diaries and journals, academic papers (with and without footnotes!), biography, Victorian poetry, and Victorian prose. Byatt is a fine mimic, and constructs a quite believable pair of Victorian intellectuals who might conceivably still be studied today, complete with extensive samples of their work, correspondence, and critical legacy. Of course, this means that significant lengths of the book are written in forms that are significantly challenging to most readers of today – Victorian poetry, anyone? -- and this is a significant downside to Possession’s stylistic veracity.
Keeping a story moving forward indirectly by leading the reader through invented primary sources is such a neat trick that it feels curmudgeonly to complain. But there are two problems. The first is a long passage – a chapter, I suppose – found about midway through the book, in which actions of Ash and LaMotte are suddenly and rather jarringly described in direct third-person. I found this lapse into everyday prose unfortunate, because the certainty invoked by direct narrative undermined the sense of mystery and doubt that had been generated by looking at the characters only through indirect documentary evidence. This may have been an authorial blunder. Or, the intention may have been to subvert genre expectations – to deliberately violate an unwritten rule against letting us know more about the object of a quest than the questing characters know themselves (or perhaps the rule is against changing course on this point in mid-novel). In whichever case, I felt the effect was to show why that convention is actually a pretty good idea.
Secondly, the richness of the novel’s interwoven texts is made possible only by a constant stream of new historical material being encountered by the present-day characters. This helps make the novel work structurally, but the sheer volume of new discoveries is eventually a bit over the top. At one point, just as the evidence on hand has proven inadequate to fully unraveling the mysteries of the past, a random graduate student in France happens to find some outrageously relevant material in an old diary, and capriciously decides to send it to one of the central characters, and so the chase continues. Well, when a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude.
In several ways, Possession is a masterpiece. In the mimesis of Victorian forms, and in the creative forgery and sequential arrangement of documents in such a way that they gradually reveal two separate story lines, both at comfortable paces, it is a wonderfully constructed novel. The ending, although I made fun of it earlier, is actually rather satisfying, and there is an epilogue that I found both clever and moving.
And yet. During the course of my reading, I twice talked to people who had read Possession within the last year or so. They asked me what I thought of it, of course, and the answer I found myself giving was “I like everything about it, except it.” I was surprised that in both cases I was immediately understood and agreed with. Possession develops a great idea, and it is beautifully structured and expertly written, but it lacked some mysterious ingredient that would take it from the realm of the technically expert into the top tier of truly excellent novels. It was a slow read for me, not because it was difficult to read but because it did not consistently hold my attention. I could put it down without much regret, and often felt no particular hurry to pick it back up again.(less)
Despite more than a passing interest in geography, in places, and in the varieties of human experience, I’ve never been a big fan of travel writing. P...moreDespite more than a passing interest in geography, in places, and in the varieties of human experience, I’ve never been a big fan of travel writing. Part of the problem may just be that I am not crazy about travel itself. Travel broadens, as we all know, but it also narrows: a traveler generally travels to places that appeal to his or her interests and beliefs, and then concludes from this experience that the world is more or less in line with what was expected.
Then too, the reports of a traveler suffer hugely from a sort of uncertainty principle: travel writing can not really capture what a place is really like, because the place itself is distorted by the presence of the traveler. Does this sound flip? I’m not being flip. The next time you read a piece of travel writing, pay attention to how much of the text is spent describing the plans, motives, adventures, and discomforts of the person traveling, how much is spent describing an outsider’s reaction to novelty, and how very, very much is spent describing amusing or amused conversations between the traveler and the local people. What is left over, generally, is more than just setting but much, much less than a real understanding of a place.
Eric Hansen’s Motoring With Mohammed is an interesting book about Eric Hansen, set in Yemen. Hansen is a smart, resourceful man who spent an amazing youth wandering about the antipodes. Just as he was beginning to think about settling down, he had a truly remarkable adventure involving a shipwreck in the Red Sea, rescue by Eritrean goat smugglers, and a brief period stranded in what was then North Yemen. Later, in the hopes of recovering personal journals lost in the shipwreck, he would return to that country, have a variety of very colorful adventures, and interview a lot of expatriates about their own very colorful adventures.
They really are awfully colorful adventures, and Hansen’s workmanlike prose renders them effectively enough. I chuckled occasionally. I thought about how remarkable Hansen’s life seems to have been, and found myself occasionally weighing his life choices against my own. But I also found myself wondering from time to time why I was reading these stories. Eric Hansen has been in some amazing situations, for sure, but Eric Hansen is not my favorite uncle. These are the amazing stories of someone else’s favorite uncle.
Let’s be fair. To be sure, I found the glimpses of Yemen and Yemeni life very interesting. I found myself digging out various maps of Yemen. In fact, my threshold of interest has been raised to the point where, if I were to encounter a book about Yemen, or better yet a book FROM Yemen, I might toss it onto the pile.
There are two technical flaws to Motoring With Mohamed that are grievous enough to be worth mentioning. The first is that, in a book about a man wandering around North Yemen having adventures, there is a map of North Yemen… following the final page. I salute the decision to include the map, but it would have been nice to know it was there while I was still reading the book.
Secondly, the title is unfortunate. If it is intended to be read literally, it refers to a single trip made in the company of a man named Mohammed that occupies considerably less than one-tenth of the book. If, on the other hand, it is supposed to suggest that this book captures some sort of essence of what it is like to travel within the Islamic world, than it is patently delusional. If it is Hansen’s own title, I’d love to know what he was thinking, but I kind of suspect that it’s just a set of words that a meeting at the publishing house thought would be jaunty enough to sell a book of real-life adventure stories set in the southern mountains of the Arabian Peninsula.(less)
The Devil went down to Moscow, he was looking for a soul to steal. Or was he? Bulgakov's Devil eludes our expectations of a Satanic presence, a...moreSummary
The Devil went down to Moscow, he was looking for a soul to steal. Or was he? Bulgakov's Devil eludes our expectations of a Satanic presence, and although you can't exactly say that no one gets hurt during his visit, he seems much more prankish than traditionally evil. Like some kind of moral martial arts master, he delights in luring people into exposing their own petty vices and cruelties. He torments the wicked, in a way, but he seems more disappointed than delighted in their wickedness. This is not, apparently, your father's Satan.
A second plot woven through the book involves Pontius Pilate and somebody named Yeshua, who seems awfully familar but who also defies expectations. Is he who we think, or is he someone else entirely, or maybe both? Bulgakov gives us plenty of clues, but never enough to be certain about anything. He is messing with us, in really interesting ways.
The book was written and is set in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, a period that the annotator refers to, reasonably enough, as "The Terror." Bulgakov, who apparently had very low expectations that the book could ever be published (as it wasn't, until 1966, and even then in a censored abridgement), comments wryly throughout on the grotesque distortions of social life under Stalinism. From the opening pages, where a pompous editor corrects an inept poet at comical length for failing to properly establish the historical non-existance of Jesus Christ in his work, he attacks political correctness (the old-school Soviet version, of which the petty stuff we carp about today is but a triffling shadow). As the book procedes, he will take aim at communal housing, the use of assylums to incarcerate people with subversive opinions, pampered regime-sponsored writers, the petty corruption and mutual suspicion that pervade communist Moscow from top to bottom, and the disquieting tendency of people to disappear suddenly and without explanation. Since all of this is handled in a supernatural context -- remember, this is a story about the Devil -- the social critique is simultaneous disturbing, surreal, and very funny. In The Master and Margarita, everything disturbing is also comical, and everything that is funny is also sad.
When I started Master, Chance and d worried that I was jumping back into "heavy allegorical Soviet lit" and "dreary Russian authors" too soon after The Brothers Karamazov. I was worried about that too, but it was soon obvious that we could all relax. Bulgakov (at least when filtered through Burgin and O'Connor) writes beautifully, the allegory leavened by a sparkling humor and the dreariness of the social commentary rendered very palatable by the crazy weirdness that crops up wherever Satan and his retinue wander. And the weirdness is pretty sublime: women riding across the sky on the backs of priggish neighbors who have been transformed into flying pigs, women fighting over fancy clothing that later vanishes while they are wearing it in public; a witches' ball attended by dead evil doers who arrive as corpses falling down the chimney into a huge fireplace. Awesome. Bulgakov writes, basically, in the comic style I'm always trying for myself -- with an exagerated, playful formality, often about seemingly trivial things, with a cumulatively profound effect. Needless to say, he manages to be a whole lot funnier, and infinitely more profound, than I will ever be.
The structure of the book is quite odd, and contributes to your off-kilter sense of not knowing quite what to expect next. In general, things get increasingly more fantastic, even hallucinatory, as the book progresses. The twining of the main narrative with the Pontius Pilate sections, similarly, becomes stranger and more intricate the deeper in you go. The characters of the Master and Margarita have to be among the least dominant title characters in all of fiction, entering the action only in Chapter 13 (of 32) and never really stealing the stage from the Devil and his oddball companions (who, I should mention, include a giant black cat that talks, walks on its hind legs, and is if anything more mischevous than his boss). Margarita is a much more vivid and interesting character than The Master, incidently, the latter a Bulgakov-like writer with several apparently semi-autobiographical qualities.
Not exactly an easy read, The Master and Margarita is nevertheless entertaining and fun. If you can handle surreality and a certain dryness of tone -- if you like Saramago, or Eco, or Calvino, or Murakami, or any of those South American dudes -- I think you'll enjoy it. Worth reading in and of itself; secondarily an interesting and humane look into life under totalitarian rule during the darkest era of the Soviet state. (less)
This book is exactly what the title says it is, the memoirs of a primate – the human Robert Sapolsky – and his adventures over a couple of decades of...moreThis book is exactly what the title says it is, the memoirs of a primate – the human Robert Sapolsky – and his adventures over a couple of decades of baboon research in Kenya. It’s a collection of stories, many about the almost-human-but-not-quite goings on in the community of baboons that he studied, but many others about Sapolsky’s adventures within the human community, in Kenya and in other parts of Africa. He is a hell of a storyteller, and although there is a lot of sadness, corruption, fear, and unnecessary misery revealed in his stories, there is also much that is chortle-out-loud funny.
Sopolsky writes with gusto and humanity, and is careful to make sure we understand that his friends and heroes are not angels and that his worst villains have reasons for doing what they do. He mourns the passing of the “old Africa,” or at least the Africa of the early 1970s, while noting that the Africa of the early 1970s was in many ways a pretty miserable state of affairs. He regrets the fading of Massai cultural integrity, while acknowledging that a big part of Massai culture was the practice of making life nasty, brutish, and often rather short for their agriculturalist neighbors. Sopolsky seems to see more of the big picture than most of us, and he speaks with bracing fairness; he laughs in admiration at the skill or imperturbability of those who have taken advantage of him, and admits with regret the times that exigencies have forced him across his own moral frontiers.
Implicit in the weaving together of baboon tales and human tales is the notion that we primates are not so very different from each other. The baboons are individuals with complex relationships and behavior driven by need, avarice, and caprice; so are the humans. Sapolsky never makes the point directly, but he gives us signposts in the title and in the four sections of the book, in which periods of Sapolsky’s own life are described in the technical nomenclature for various stages of baboon development.
Hurray for the Reading List, as this is not a book that I would ever have thought to read on my own. I’m not much of one for non-fiction, and certainly not for natural history. But I found A Primate’s Memoir a delight, funny and educational and moving and wise. Recommended for primates with the capacity for written language.(less)
I know more about the background of this book than I usually do because the edition I read had a foreword by Da...moreWell, it’s no Lolita.
But then, what is?
I know more about the background of this book than I usually do because the edition I read had a foreword by David Lodge. He’s one of my favorite writers-about-literature, so I actually read what he had to say, although not of course until I had finished the book. And I’m glad I did; not only did his thoughts and comments enrich my understanding, but his at-first baffling description of a key scene made me realize that I had accidentally turned over two pages at the end of a chapter, thereby missing one of the best passages in the book.
Anyway. Pnin is an early entry in the campus comedy genre, a portrait of an eccentric professor of Russian written in seven discrete, episodic chapters. From the foreword, I learned that Nabokov wrote the book in a series of short stories that were first published in the New Yorker before being appearing together as a novel. Yet despite this, and despite that the individual episodes vary widely in tone and theme, this is no collection of short stories. The novel is in fact tightly interwoven, with mysteries from the opening page that aren't cleared up until the final chapter, and a florid abundance of subplots that gently progress over the course of the narrative. Much of the primary plot, the “story,” happened long before the rather quotidian events described in the book, and is only gradually uncovered and discovered through fragmentary references to the past. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to describe Pnin as a kind of Cubist portrait, in which we see a single life from all sorts of angles simultaneously – or at least as "simultaneously" as you can burn through 130 pages (it’s short!).
This being Nabokov, Pnin is chockablock with erudite wordplay that is positively Nabokovian, and I say this in every confidence that two-thirds of it went straight over my head. But it ain’t all highbrow stuff, either. There’s plenty of making fun of how our hero, the eponymous Professor Timofey Pnin, talks funny, and there’s a long scene that relies on the sitcom device of him thinking he’s talking to one guy when he’s actually talking to somebody else. The opening scene, in fact, is a long shaggy dog story about how Pnin has got on the wrong train and hasn’t figured it out yet, ho ho ho! It’s not likely to have you in stitches, but Nabokov has the comic timing to make it all work.
Now if you’re like me, you are fascinated by the way that the nature of the narrator structures a work of literature, amIright? And in this regard, Pnin is positively over the top. From the first sentence, Nabokov introduces an ambiguity as to whether the story is being told by a garden variety omniscient implied narrator or by a specific but unnamed storyteller within the world of the novel. But as we start to get comfortable with the omniscient narrator, who after all constantly remarks on Pnin’s thoughts and feelings, the unnamed storyteller will suddenly pop up and assert himself, remarking offhandedly for instance that someone who Pnin knows is a mutual acquaintance. As the book continues, these intrusions get more and more frequent until, by the last chapter, the narrator is writing in the first person and is the active party, Pnin himself still at the center of attention but as the object of someone else’s observation. (And just to put the cherry on the cake, Lodge tells us that Nabokov drops numerous biographical hints that the narrator is, in essence, real-life Nabokov.) I don’t recall seeing anything quite like it before, and no wonder; this kind of writing requires a technical virtuoso.
But is it any good? Well, in most of the chapters, Professor Pnin is a fairly pathetic figure. His research is silly, he’s a poor teacher, and he talks funny. He’s not well-integrated into American culture, his personal life is lonely and unhappy, and he is petty, selfish, and vain. If he stayed in this one mode to the end of the book, he would be pretty hard to take.
But, there are surprises waiting that add a great deal of depth to the novel. On a weekend road trip, Pnin gets himself lost on country roads through his foolishness and vanity – but then, suddenly, reaches his destination, a country house where he is staying for the weekend with several of his fellow expatriates, intellectuals who fled the Bolsheviks and then the Nazis before washing up in alien North America. Among his own kind, the ridiculous Dr. Pnin is suddenly revealed as an intelligent, sensitive, even urbane man with more subtleties and sorrows than anything we have seen of him on campus. A few chapters later, he hosts a party for his handful of campus friends, and although he is still a bit of a buffoon in this setting we can also see that he is a humane figure who is playing a tough deal as best he can.
So Pnin is funny, but darkly funny. It’s witty but spare. It’s a lot of fun for readers who like to put some work into their fun.(less)