A short lyrical novel - snapshots of a man's life in Soviet Russia during World War Two and afterwards, as he gives up music and goes into hiding. InA short lyrical novel - snapshots of a man's life in Soviet Russia during World War Two and afterwards, as he gives up music and goes into hiding. In this translation, Makine's prose is beautiful and elegant. It is a novel that finds beautiful music in the horrors, disappointments and hopes of a difficult life....more
Scarlet and Black is incredible for its depth of psychological and social insight at a time when there wasn't the novel as we know it today. Reading iScarlet and Black is incredible for its depth of psychological and social insight at a time when there wasn't the novel as we know it today. Reading it I had to keep reminding myself that Stendhal was inventing what the novel was to become.
I can't help feeling he holds his characters in faint contempt, that he is holding them all up to ridicule. It balances the earnestness of his main character, Julien Sorel, that we have an author who can see so clearly when Julien is being ridiculous. The novel captures the spirit of the age so well, the ambitious peasant, the clash of enlightenment values and tradition.
It was something of a marathon to read; I spent six weeks on it, and kept on starting other novels in the meantime (a bad idea). It is an achievement, and yet for me not a novel I enjoyed reading....more
It’s been a prolific decade for my favourite author, Paul Auster –he has just published his sixth novel of the noughties. As prolific as he’s been, heIt’s been a prolific decade for my favourite author, Paul Auster –he has just published his sixth novel of the noughties. As prolific as he’s been, he’s also published some of his weakest works –I don’t care for the crowd-pleasing Brooklyn Follies nor Travels in the Scriptorium, although at least they’re better than Timbuktu, his late nineties novel told through the eyes of a dog. I rate his new novel, Invisible, the second best of the six of the decade, after The Book of Illusions. It is the most typical of his whole career, with many of his recurring elements appearing – a mysterious stranger, a change of fortune, a struggling poet translating French texts, a random act of violence, and a framed narrative. As almost always happens in Auster’s novels, the protagonist is a male New Yorker born in 1947 and a student at Columbia. Adam Walker is a college student and aspiring poet and the novel is about the defining year of his life, 1967. Adam meets a mysterious stranger at a party – Rudolf Born – who makes him an offer that will change his life; Born will pay Adam to edit a literary magazine. Born is called away on business, and Adam is seduced by Born’s girlfriend, Margot. Yet it isn’t this that causes a rift between them, but Born’s violent stabbing of a mugger. Adam spends much of the rest of the novel hoping to see justice served on Born for the murder. In between, he has lots of sex with his sister, and even though there’s been hints of incest in Auster’s work before (In The Country of Last Things, The Red Notebook, from memory) it is the sexual explicitness of this novel that is its most atypical feature. Usually Auster summarizes sex without going into much detail at all, but this time he is more anatomical. Complicating the story is a complicated framing device. The first part about Walker meeting Born and things going wrong, is revealed to be the first chapter of a manuscript Walker has written in the present day and sent to his friend Jim, a famous writer. Walker is terminally ill and is trying to finish the memoir before he dies. (A situation which recalls Thomas Effing telling Fogg his life story in Moon Palace for his obituary, and Hector Mann bringing Zimmer to his ranch to see his secret films before he dies in The Book of Illusions.) After Jim’s framing, the second part of the novel is told in second person to overcome Walker’s writer’s block. The third part of the novel is filled out by Jim from Walker’s rough notes. As Walker’s narrative ends, Jim does some detective work, tracking down the people involved and trying to solve some of the mysteries. It is a compulsively readable story, fascinating and littered with insights into the way we make meaning of life and how we decide what to do with ourselves. In her review, Lionel Shriver contended that there is nothing to take away from the book, that it’s like a glass of lemonade. I think part of what she is noticing and what disappoints her is an insistence by Auster that his narratives attempt to mimic some of the randomness of life, with both its coincidence and its failure to resolve. I read a reviewer once describe Auster’s work as a handful of smooth stones rubbing against each other, but not yielding anything as simple as meaning. ...more
In 1954, told he is not long for this world, 74 year old Congregationalist pastor John Ames sets out to write a testament of his life for his seven yeIn 1954, told he is not long for this world, 74 year old Congregationalist pastor John Ames sets out to write a testament of his life for his seven year old son. Ames has lived in the Iowan town of Gilead all his life. It is a digressive testament, journal-like, added to day by day. It starts out in the past, focusing on the conflict between his pacifist father and his abolitionist grandfather, both ministers of the same church he now pastors. The second half focuses on the present return of his prodigal grandson, Jack Boughton, and Ames struggle to love Jack. In the end, love wins out and Jack confides his secret to Ames.
Robinson’s prose is careful, precise, close to perfect even as she writes in the cadence and idiom of an old man fifty years ago. It was twenty-four years since her previous novel and it feels like the sort of novel a writer might spend decades on.
It is wise and grace-filled. It is Christian in many senses, but perhaps most importantly because its heart is grace: grace is embedded in the narrator and the novel. (I don’t think Christianity is or should be simply grace at its heart, but I think the novel and the novelist might contend so.) It is a novel which shows a lot of love for people and the world, even in their ugliness and brokenness.
Ames’ grace contrasts with his grandfather’s ‘activism’ and his father’s ‘holiness’. Robinson is contrasting three streams of Christianity – what Richard Foster would call in Streams of Living Water the social justice, holiness and incarnational streams. For Ames’ grandfather, Christianity means justice at any cost, and he steals and shoots to achieve it. For Ames’ father, having no part in evil is what counts, and he leaves the church for a time during the war to sit with the pacifist Quakers.
Robinson privileges Ames’ type of Christianity – a moderate, grace-filled faith of small things. There’s less certainty and more mystery.
There are few novels that are both so Christian and so accomplished. There are evangelicals writing consciously Christian novels which are Christianised popular fiction. There are great writers (Updike and Greene, both now deceased; Winton) with Christian tendenancies or some measure of faith writing novels which have some Christian themes. But there are few writers writing great literature that are so drenched in a Christian worldview.
And yet having said that, I didn’t connect to the novel as much as I wanted to. I think it just comes down to my personal aesthetics of writing, that this isn’t the kind of book I like to read best. Perhaps it’s the lack of particular kind of narrative drive I miss. Perhaps I like less saintly narrators with more ambition and sin to their name.
Last year, Robinson published a follow-up novel from the perspective of Jack. I’m looking forward to reading it.
I couldn’t put this memoir down. I didn’t mean to read it all but I couldn’t help it. I could discern no structure at all, but just followed Barnes foI couldn’t put this memoir down. I didn’t mean to read it all but I couldn’t help it. I could discern no structure at all, but just followed Barnes for two hundred pages of reflections on death and God through the lens of his family. The whole memoir has the sort of wistfulness of the opening line quoted in the title of this post: ‘I don’t believe in God but I miss him.’
Despite the constant humour, it is a frightening book to read. I have never thought through so fully the consequences of not believing in life after death. Even in my moments of strongest doubts about Christianity, I haven’t sustained the outlook that death means the permanent extinguishment of my consciousness. No wonder he’s even more scared of death than me. I think it’s immensely brave of atheists and agnostics to live with hope, meaning and purpose. I don’t know how I would. (Indeed, at times Barnes seems to be suggesting that he has to suspend thinking about the way things actually are in order to live with meaning.)
The title is even cleverer than it sounds; it’s nothingness, extinction that he’s frightened of.
He mentions his wife only once, yet about the time the book was published, she died. I wonder if he wrote with a knowledge that she was dying. If he did, he is a remarkably disciplined writer, probably marshalling all the insights his wife’s dying brought him, but recasting them to protect her privacy. The amazing achievement of the memoir that seems to tell all, that so casually reveals so much about his mother, father, brother, self – and yet keeps hidden bigger parts of his life that he didn’t want to or couldn’t tell us about.
Perhaps my favourite passages were the ones reflecting on the art of writing from the perspective of not only our own deaths but the ultimate forgetting of our work. Every work, he tells us, must have a final reader:
For writers, the process of being forgotten isn’t clear-cut. ‘Is it better for a writer to die before he is forgotten, or to be forgotten before he dies?’ But ‘forgotten’ here is only a comparative term, meaning: fall out of fashion, be used up, seen through, superseded, judged too superficial – or, for that matter, too ponderous, too serious – for a later age. But truly forgotten, now that’s much more interesting. First, you fall out of print, consigned to the recesses of the secondhand bookshop and dealer’s website. Then a brief revival, if you’re lucky, with a title or two reprinted; then another fall, and a period when a few graduate students, pushed for a thesis topic, will wearily turn your pages and wonder why you wrote so much. Eventually, the publishing houses forget, academic interest recedes, society changes, and humanity evolves a little further, as evolution carries out its purposeless purpose of rendering us all the equivalent of bacteria and amoebae. This is inevitable. And at some point – it must logically happen – a writer will have a last reader. I am not asking for sympathy; this aspect of a wrtier’s living and dying is a given. At some point between now and the six-billion-years-away death of the planet, every writer will have his or her last reader. (225)
Barnes then addresses his last reader, at first thanking them but then realising that by definition this last reader has not passed on his work to anyone else, and so cursing them. A sobering thought....more
**spoiler alert** The Cement Garden feels like an apocalyptic work even though it's strictly not. When their mother dies, four children bury her in ce**spoiler alert** The Cement Garden feels like an apocalyptic work even though it's strictly not. When their mother dies, four children bury her in cement in the basement rather than risk being put in an orphanage. Jack narrates, and although he never explicitly says it, the narrative is driven by his lust for his sister Julie. Early on, he and Julie play with their sister Sue's body; he begs Julie to take her clothes off and be next. She doesn't, but it sets up a time-bomb that only goes off in the last couple of pages when he finally does get his older sister's clothes off and mor...more
**spoiler alert** Why I love this book The youthful quest for identity and meaning is literalised into the quest for survival and in doing so perhaps**spoiler alert** Why I love this book The youthful quest for identity and meaning is literalised into the quest for survival and in doing so perhaps it resonates with my own romantic visions of being young and feeling alone in the world. The threat of starvation, living in a cave in Central Park, surviving by selling off secondhand books, the determination to do nothing all to save oneself – all exaggerated literalisations of my own early twenties, of being a student and then being unemployed for a time.
In relying on co-incidences as a major plot device and drawing meaning from parallels and intersections, Moon Palace seems to offer a fresh way of making sense of the world. Every narrative reduces the complexity of the world to a narrative logic of some order and coherence, but it’s the freshness of Auster which shines so brightly in this novel. Life seems full of the leaps and co-incidences and intersections out of which M.S. Fogg makes sense of life.
I love the way M.S. and Effing both give life meaning by setting themselves crazy projects. M.S. reading every book of Uncle Victor’s and in this way paying tribute to Victor’s life. Effing giving away to strangers the stolen money he found decades earlier. M.S. and Sol setting out to find the cave Effing hid in. I think reading this and echoes in other Auster’s works gave me a similar tendency from 2001 onwards.
A plot overview - spoiler warning
This story of how Marco Stanley Fogg’s life ‘began’ is told in first person; at one point he specifies that he’s writing in 1986, fifteen years after the narrative ends. We don’t learn anything of these intervening years save a single scene; its the first twenty-three years of M.S. Fogg’s life we learn about.
M.S. tells his childhood quickly, giving us summaries and a few brief incidents. When his mother is killed in a traffic accident, he is adopted by his Uncle Victor. Uncle Victor is a member of a band called the Moonmen and has a big influence on the young M.S.. He gets him thinking, gets him reading and teaches him that names have a power; they aren’t just co-incidental – the baseball player Glen Hobbie will never make it big, because his name implies amateurism; M.S.’s name itself carries much better significances – the explorers Marco Polo, Stanley Livingstone, Phileas Fogg. M.S. himself goes on to reflect on the initials M.S. which become his name and the idea of his life as a manuscript, a narrative in progress. When he heads to Columbia University, his uncle gives him his collection of 1492 books. The boxes form the furniture of M.S.’s apartment.
M.S. hasn’t finished university when news reaches him of his uncle’s death. Money was always going to be tight, but by the time he’s paid off Victor’s debts, he knows he is living on limited time, that he has to do something or he will not have the money to finish. And yet in an irrational act of quixotism, a kind of bravery or solitude or stubbornness, he decides to do nothing, to see what will happen to him.
His concession to his situation is to sell off his uncle’s books, but he reads each one before he sells it. Since the books were stacked chronologically, the sequence of titles resembles the sequence in which his uncle read them – except that the boxes themselves are not in order – and in doing so, he feels he relives his uncle’s life. (This might seem a small point, but it is the touches like this that are part of the brilliance of the novel for me.)
When he runs out of money, he goes to visit his friend David Zimmer (who, of course, reappears in Auster’s The Book of Illusions). Zimmer has moved on, but he bursts into a breakfast party held by the new tenants. They feed him; he eats ravenously and meets his ‘twin’ – Kitty Wu, who is wearing the same t-shirt as him.
Soon he is kicked out of his apartment. He goes to live in Central Park. He gets sick, holes up in a cave and is on the verge of death when Kitty and Zimmer finally find him. Kitty has been looking for him for some time; she never felt so sorry for anyone in her life, she tells him, than when she met him that one time at breakfast.
He recovers in Zimmer’s apartment for several months and is rejected for the Vietnam draft. Zimmer urges him to go and pursue Kitty; she’s in love with him and she’s waiting for him to make the next move. Kitty and M.S. become lovers, discovering in each other true soulmates.
M.S. needs money; he answers an advertisement and becomes a companion to one Thomas Effing, an elderly bad tempered man who is either blind or pretending to be blind. M.S. moves in to Effing’s house, leaving Zimmer behind. At this point Zimmer disappears from the narrative and M.S.’s life, which seems extraordinary – why didn’t Kitty and M.S. keep up with him, at least? In the only flash-forward, M.S. tells us that the only time he’s seen Zimmer since was four years ago, in 1982, when he saw him, his wife and kids walking down the street and stops and talks to him for twenty minutes.
(We don’t read about this incident in The Book of Illusions; the only link to M.S. we learn about in that novel is that one of Zimmer’s sons – who die soon after in a plane crash – is named Marco. Surely Zimmer would have told M.S.? I don’t think Auster had realised he was going to do this when he wrote Moon Palace; if only he could go back and adjust it.)
After some space devoted to the great love between M.S. and Kitty, Kitty moves out of focus for a chapter as M.S.’s adventures with Thomas Effing come to the fore. I make the mistake of picturing Effing as the Big Lebowski, the one in the wheel-chair, from the Coen brothers’ film, but this is wrong. Both are grumpy and insane, but Effing is a tragic figure as much as a comic one.
M.S. takes Effing for walks, and must describe the world to him, quickly and precisely, noticing all the details he has taken for granted. Then one day Effing declares he is going to die in two months and it’s time to get started on his obituary. Effing tells his life story, a story which parallels and resonates with M.S.’s. Effing was born Julian Barber in a wealthy family. He was a painter and disliked his ‘frigid’ wife. He sets off into the Utah wilderness with the heir of another rich family to paint the unique light. Their guide is unscrupulous and when the young heir falls down a ravine and is fatally injured, the guide refuses to stay with him or to take him back. Effing stays with him as he dies and then wonders what to do.
Fearing his name will be mud because of the death of the heir but perhaps also sensing the opportunity, Effing decides to not return, to stay out there in the wilderness. Just on the point of death, he finds a murdered hermit in a cave. He decides to take over the hermit’s life, and paints his best paintings ever, knowing that no-one will ever see them, painting them only for himself. He learns that the hermit was murdered by a gang of robbers and that the robbers will be back. When they return, he’s waiting for them, killing all three and taking their loot. Rich again, he heads back to civilisation, exiled from everyone he once knew and living under his new identity of ‘Thomas Effing’.
In time, he learns that he actually fathered a son the night before he left for Utah and he observes the man’s life from afar. His son’s name is Solomon Barber and he is a history academic.
His time nearly up, Effing wants to give away the original amount of money he took from the robbers. Despite his bad health, he forces M.S. to take him into the streets where they give away the money. On the last night, it’s pouring with rain but Effing insists on continuing and M.S. realises he is determined to die. Sure enough, he catches pneumonia and holds onto life only until two minutes past midnight on the day he had nominated as his day of death.
Effing leaves M.S. a sum of money and for a time Kitty and M.S. enjoy a blissful, carefree existence living together. M.S., meanwhile, writes to Solomon Barber, who is keen to meet M.S..
Sol realises as soon as he meets M.S. that M.S. is the son he didn’t know he had. While a professor he slept with M.S.’s mother – his nineteen year old student – in the morning they were discovered in bed together and the scandal caused Sol to be dismissed. She went back to her hometown and refused to speak to Sol again. Sol doesn’t tell M.S. any of this, figuring there is lots of time, that the right moment will come. He does, however, move to New York and become friends with M.S. and Kitty.
In the meantime, the bliss of M.S. and Kitty’s love is destroyed. Kitty gets pregnant; she wants an abortion and M.S. desperately wants the baby. M.S. frames it as his mistake, that he was foolish to be upset about her wanting the abortion. When he gives in and she has the abortion, something breaks in his heart. He can’t bear to be with her; he moves in with Sol for a ‘break’. Sol tries to get them back together; Kitty waits for M.S. to return – but he cannot.
(One can only speculate on Paul Auster behind the text here. And as much as I shouldn’t, I will. Perhaps like M.S., as an American liberal, he believes in his head that abortion is a necessary choice, not something to mourn. Yet perhaps he had an experience like M.S. where his heart felt it was a terrible thing and wouldn’t match his head.)
Sol hatches a plan to get M.S. out of his funk. They are going to find the cave in Utah where Effing lived for a time and hid his paintings. On the way, they stop to visit M.S.’s mother’s grave. Sol starts sobbing at the grave and reveals the truth to M.S.. M.S.’s first reaction is anger and Sol blinded by tears stumbles away, straight into an open grave. His back is broken and he spends weeks dying in the hospital, attended by M.S. day and night.
When Sol dies, M.S. rings Kitty; she’s the only one who might understand. She listens, and is sorry for him, but she won’t have him back. She has someone else; she says he nearly killed her and she’s had to harden her heart to survive. (As much as one might understand this, it’s actually only been three months since M.S. moved out; I can’t help thinking that the truest love would have waited longer than that.)
Having lost everyone, M.S. tries to find Effing’s cave. He finally discovers the area was flooded; all he can do is hire a boat and ride over the lake, knowing he is as close as he will get. When he returns, his car with his inheritance has been stolen. With just his wallet in his pocket, he starts walking. He walks all the way to the west coast, and when he gets there he stands in the Pacific Ocean watching the moon rise. And that’s the end of the story....more