I've been thinking about what I could have missed. I try, but can't find the similarity to The Catcher in the Rye that others found. Which is good, beI've been thinking about what I could have missed. I try, but can't find the similarity to The Catcher in the Rye that others found. Which is good, because I don't think Catcher is much more than a prerequisite and definitely not an end unto itself. Beer in the Snooker Club bears more similarity to A Passage to India. BITSC's protagonist, Ram (the nephew of a prominent Egyptian family who floats through life on privilege, good connections, a classical education, and a winning personality) resembles Dr. Aziz much more than he does Holden Caulfield - if not in temperament, at least in navigating the dangerous terrain of being native and operating in an Anglo-dominated high society. Besides that, Holden Caulfield would never have contemplated a fortnight on the town with reference to The Sun Also Rises, which is what Ram does - proposing the protagonist and his party abandon decency like "the Hemingway people in Spain." Caulfield treated most human interaction as a form of vandalism, with a satanic drive to simply be left alone. Ram constantly feels the effects of his growing alienation from his contemporaries. He resents the sycophancy of his cousin, the self-loathing manners of his francophile maternal relatives, the condescension of liberal English upper class families, the hopelessness of those stupid or idealistic enough to get involved in politics. His attitudes toward those he cares about are much more complex. He finds it easy enough to lure the women in his life away from their natural, likely prospective mates but difficult to secure any kind of commitment from them. The mixture of love and apparent rejection weighs heavily on his heart. The gradual drift away from his best friend, who may lack Ram's highly developed sense of self, is one of the book's central devices. I just don't see Holden Caulfield being concerned by alienation or the feelings of others.
Beer in the Snooker Club is a beautifully plain-written novel. The setting - 1956-1959 by my own estimate - is easy to identify with, even in a location that seems exotic to North American readers. The Sinai War and its effects on geopolitics is well known and can be used for mise en scene without spending much time on the political/historic circumstances. Though BITSC is an inherently political novel, it feels like a 20th century English novel in the vein of Anthony Powell or Evelyn Waugh. The scattered, occasional suggestions that the book will take a turn toward Dostoevsky or Darkness at Noon/Nineteen Eighty-Four are not brought to term. Only at the end, when it is plain that there is an entirely concealed side of Ram's character does the reader understand how political the book truly is. For all practical purposes, the reader interfaces with it at a totally non-political level, focusing instead on the first generation's identity struggle in a post-colonial world. If Beer in the Snooker Club had been written later, we would call Ram's identity crises a sign of globalization and its discontents.
Ghali's prose is impressionistic, rather than reactionary. He describes Egypt as "(invoking) in you, I suppose, a scene of a fellah trudging home in the twilight, a spade over his shoulder, and his son leading a cow behind him. Well, Egypt is a place where middle-aged people play croquet" and later as "many different things. Playing snooker with Doromian and Varenian the Armenians, is Egypt to me. Sarcastic remarks are Egypt to me - not only the fellah and his plight. Riding the tram is Egypt. Do you know my friend Fawzi? He can never give an answer that isn't witty... and yet he isn't renowned for it. He's an ordinary Egyptian. Last week I was riding the tram with him when a man stepped on his foot. 'Excuse me,' said the man, 'for stepping on your foot.' - 'Not at all,' said Fawzi, 'I've been stepping on it myself for the last twenty-seven years' ... How can I explain to you that Egypt to me is something unconscious, is nothing particularly political, or... or... oh, never mind."
Beer in the Snooker Club is a beautiful novel, if not characteristic of Egyptian literature (of which I know nothing) at least a good study of the state of the novel itself in the 1960s. It's a shame this book is not more widely available or taught in the US. I'm very grateful for the publishers for bringing it back to print.j...more
It's nothing less than astounding that Gore Vidal gives the full impression of personally knowing Lincoln (and the Washington satellites), despite morIt's nothing less than astounding that Gore Vidal gives the full impression of personally knowing Lincoln (and the Washington satellites), despite more than a century separating them. No other author has accomplished this level of intuition. Actually, "intuition" isn't the right word. Not being Gore Vidal, I am unable to come up with a suitably enigmatic word to describe his greatest enigma. ...more
**spoiler alert** I told a couple of people that I just read a great book about World War I. When asked, "What was so great about it?" I answered, "Be**spoiler alert** I told a couple of people that I just read a great book about World War I. When asked, "What was so great about it?" I answered, "Because it ends with this amazing passage from Mein Kampf."
Both people's reaction: "That's horrible. Why, exactly, is that good?"
People who don't have a great bead on the political significance of World War I do not automatically equate it with the beginning of what Robert McNamara called the wholesale slaughter of the twentieth century. The Beauty and the Sorrow is not the best book for someone lacking familiarity with the subject.
But for those who have read a little about World War I (or the political developments of 1914-1919), Peter Englund has delivered a treasure.
A social history, The Beauty and the Sorrow follows a handful of unrelated lives from start to end of the war. The lives do not intersect. The lives are a broad sample, but not just from a sociological standpoint. Psychologically, Englund discovered the tangible differences between a British citizen's way of looking at things from that of, say, a Russian's. Or an Italian's... or a Hungarian's... or a Latin American's... and so on.
There's not a single trace of gimmick in the approach. "Uncanny" would be the wrong word, but "canny" would not be the right one. I lack the skill to describe exactly what Englund accomplished. It's hard to imagine anyone doing this good of a job with a subject as well-covered as World War I. Amazing. ...more
I finished a book last night (not Chronic City; I read that last month). Upon putting the finished book on the nightstand, I started talking. It was lI finished a book last night (not Chronic City; I read that last month). Upon putting the finished book on the nightstand, I started talking. It was like a levee had broken. I probably hadn't said anything for several hours. For all I know, I probably hadn't said a whole lot in a couple of days. Obviously, reading is a solitary activity, one that sequesters the reader inside his or her own head. I didn't realize that it also constituted a communications fast, if taken too far.
Once I started talking, my wife told me she was glad I was through with the book I had just read. She said I have read several books recently that rendered me emotionally inaccessible. She cited An American Tragedy and Native Son and Chronic City as examples.
American Tragedy and Native Son are decidedly downbeat experiences. Pathos isn't the purpose, but it is the author's stock-in-trade for those particular books. But Chronic City is decidedly different. It seems to be meant to initiate a chain reaction of questioning from the reader. If any book breaks the sequestration of introspection, this should be it. Lethem calls us all out as being sleepwalkers, hypnotized by our own notions of reality and mores, and challenges us to wake up and realize how artificial our worlds are.
Maybe this isn't the height of encouragement, but it didn't make me feel sad. I wasn't aware that, as I was being guided by Lethem's reasoning, I was moving about as on a spaceship. I thought I was awakened to sensuality, that I was more (not less) engaged for the thrill I was having reading Chronic City.
(I should pause here to say what a lot of people have said about Chronic City. The play on the allegory of the cave or The Matrix or any variation in between that suggests our view of life is laughably incomplete isn't new. Nor is it ingenious to contemporary man. The suggestion that reality could be a terrarium or a genius' dream didn't blow my mind. The subject is so common place, that a novel dealing with the scenario is as ubiquitous harlequin romance or sexy vampires.)
But Jonathan Lethem is an uncommonly provocative author. Despite his preference for working with scenarios possibly designed to deter readers, he can do more with the written word than much more highly acclaimed writers. Reading Jonathan Lethem produces a palpable, electric excitement. Particularly when he starts riffing on counter culture, he makes you want to consume as much cultural product as possible - hell, even more than possible; he makes you want to cut new openings into your body to pour music and film and art into.
I recall one particular morning following an apocalyptic night of binge drinking. Something had snapped in my brain. It wasn't good or bad (unfortunately, it was temporary). I stood staring at my record collection and wished I could hear all of it at one time, one solid intravenous infusion of sound. Driving to work, I listened to a few seconds of every song on the CD in the stereo; the windows were down and I enjoyed everything about the world from the shock of the cold air to the glare of the sun to the quake in my stomach and ache behind my eyes. I understood consciousness and the sun to be evil at that moment, but loved them both for reasons I felt rather than understood. When I got to work, I was insufferable - launching from esoteric topic to esoteric topic like I was under the influence of something harder than a spontaneous epiphany.
I felt the same experience reading Chronic City. I imagined myself as animated - even manic - as that weird hangover morning. I thought the hysterics in which I tried to explain basic sensations would drive my wife crazy. Imagine my surprise when I learned it was the opposite. All the fireworks were taking place in my head. My sudden joie de vivre was as invisible to others as Perkus Tooth's hallucinations were to anyone outside his apartment.
I suppose both I and my wife are wrong in our own way about my behavior those few days. Like Rashomon, memory is only as perfect as the person remembering. Another way of putting it is that of Escher's stair climbers. In our ambulations, people tend to inhabit the same physical space. A simple shift, however, can tilt any given person onto a subtle - but different - axis. The stair climbers - for all we know - flip back and forth among available axes. At times, even, all may find themselves on the same plane. But at other times they are on different ones altogether, possibly without knowing it.
I should point out that there were a lot of external stressors happening at the same time I was engrossed in Chronic City. As far as I can tell, it momentarily flipped my axis. This is the only way of explaining why I thought I was giddy with enthusiasm and my wife thought I was morose in a cess pool.
Who can say whether the unnamed external stressors or Jonathan Lethem flipped the axes? Who can say whether the phenomenon can be repeated? Who's to say whether I actually perceive something real or if my melodrama has gotten away from me? Finally, if this extraordinary book did, in fact, carve out some unique psychic space for me, is it advisable to invite others to explore it for themselves?
As Perkus Tooth warned:
"...Don't rupture another's illusion unless you're positive the alternative you offer is more worthwhile than that from which you're wrenching them. Interrogate your solipsism: Does it offer a better home than the delusions you're reaching to shatter?"
In hindsight, this is probably the worst "review" of anything I have ever written. I fear the person who can even follow my wobbly stream of consciousness on this....more