An almost seamless narrative with a large and voluble cast. Author Ferrante opens Vol. 1 of her tetralogy with a classic framing device (presumably noAn almost seamless narrative with a large and voluble cast. Author Ferrante opens Vol. 1 of her tetralogy with a classic framing device (presumably not closed until the end of Vol. 4). It's the present day and Lila's son calls Elena, who's living in Turin, to say his mother is missing from her Naples home. This sets Elena to writing about the hardscrabble yet eventful upbringing she and Lila shared in post-World War II Naples.
The families are blue collar, desperately poor, for whom education is viewed as a luxury. Lila, the smarter of the two, the "brilliant friend" of the title, has a dream of writing novels with Elena one day. But there is no money for textbooks in the Cerrulo family, so Lila is taken out of school to help in the family cobblery and at home. Extremely shrewd and calculating, once education is excluded for Lila, she must resort to woman's traditional means of securing her future: marriage.
Elena, meanwhile, partly due to coaching from Lila, makes it all the way to high school where she excels in languages and writing. But the fire for learning that Lila kindled in her begins to wane without her friend's eager presence. It's no longer much fun. Moreover, Lila's approval is the constant standard Elena aspires to, even as she meets and exceeds it.
Lila and Elena's families do not live enlightened lives. Their skin is extraordinarily thin. There is an almost mystical belief in honor accompanied by its cruel machismo. They possess almost no ability to mitigate their quarrrels through language. There is much acting out, things said that would be better left unsaid. There is the threat of enormous violence which may erupt at any time.
When as teens they travel to an exclusive section of Naples, because Lila wants to see it, the young men in the party, enraged by the splendor, insult a chic local couple and start a mêlée. Remarkably, though they are clearly in the wrong, the reader understands their anger and hopes they make it through unscathed. At the last moment, the hated Solaras arrive in their shiny new Fiat in a neat example of the neighborhood circling the wagons and joining forces against the outsider rich.
Everyone hates the Solaras, who are successful bar and pastry shop owners as well as Camorra and live well. Rino, Lila's brother, especially hates them. When Rino is frustrated in a get rich quick shoemaking scheme with Lila, he becomes first a braggart, telling of his coming good fortune, and then a brute. He beats Lila since she will have nothing to more to do with him. Ultimately the Solaras seduce him with their money and "prestige." Pathetic.
Don Achille Carraci has made a career out of loan sharking and intimidation, especially of the poor. The carpenter Peluso, who gambles away his earnings every week in the Solara bar, conceives a murderous hatred for the gangster, eventually stabbing him to death. Peluso is jailed but the neighborhood breathes a sigh relief now that the menacing Don is gone. But the Don's work is in a sense finished. For the Carracci sons have taken over the convict-carpenter's shop and turned it into a grocery, which seems to continually expand and prosper.
Lila grows to become the most beautiful of the two friends. Marcello, a despised Solara, shows up at her parent's flat with food and a television and wine and other goodies. He dines over there every night for weeks on end, providing much of the fine food himself. Expensive items the family could never afford. All this as a means of allying the parents with his suit, but Lila hates his guts because he's Camorra, a mafioso. Her ultimate rejection of Marcello reduces him to sobs. Later, like a child, he retaliates with ridiculous calumny, besmirching her reputation.
Lila is headstrong. Her beauty captivates men and makes women jealous—including, sometimes, Elena, our narrator. Lila has turned from ugly duckling to magnificent swan. When she dumps Marcello and Stefano Achille, the Don's son, whisks her off in a car full of money, we begin to wonder if she's sold out. The end of Vol. 1 is a humdinger. I don't want to give it away. Suffice it to say, that Stefano and Lila marry at a hugely expensive wedding and Marcello, whom Lila does not want there, attends anyway.
This is the story of an ecstatic, The Robber, who enjoys life about as much as anyone possibly can, even when he suffers. Set in Switzerland in the eaThis is the story of an ecstatic, The Robber, who enjoys life about as much as anyone possibly can, even when he suffers. Set in Switzerland in the early 1920s, he is forever moving between elation over this wonderful world, and despair over the fickle indifference of his great love, Edith. He tries to assuage his disappointment with liaisons with other women, but to no avail. This third-person narrative alternates with a first-person intrusive narrator who upbraids Edith for her indifference to The Robber and sounds off on any number of peripheral matters in a seemingly offhand if not random fashion. These "arabesques," as W.G. Sebald calls them, might also be thought of as a kind of ur-magic realism. As if that weren't enough, late in the text it is announced by the author that he and The Robber have teamed up to create the present text. This reader was reminded of Herman Melville's Pierre: or, the Ambiguities, though it should be said that The Robber is a laugh riot compared to that formal novel and far more, indeed almost obsessively, discursive.
Read the Jean Jacques Rousseau and Robert Walser essays. which are vintage Sebald. Waiting to read the works of Mörike, Keller and Hebel, which I don'Read the Jean Jacques Rousseau and Robert Walser essays. which are vintage Sebald. Waiting to read the works of Mörike, Keller and Hebel, which I don't know, before finishing remaining essays....more
This is wonderful. Dense with historical incident, deft characterization, and the telling detail that is García Márquez's hallmark. It's the story ofThis is wonderful. Dense with historical incident, deft characterization, and the telling detail that is García Márquez's hallmark. It's the story of Simón Bolívar--he who liberated South America from Spanish colonial tyranny--and his retreat from public life just prior to his death. The great trick of the novel is to make condensed passages of historical summary ring with life through the recollections of the dying General. Predictably perhaps he obsessively catalogs his enemies' perfidies which on some level seem to be the disease which is killing him, though it's actually TB. Such is the loyalty of the man's officers that just before his death he sends them off on various guerilla missions to undermine the governments of his enemies. Despite the sure knowledge of his impending death he seeks to promote insurrection instead of harmony.
It is for this reason that John Lynch, one of Bolívar's biographers, detests the popular idea of the man as the "George Washington of South America." Truly, he was nothing of the kind. He allowed himself to be named Liberator and Dictator of Peru and through the Ocaña Convention named himself Bolivia's "president for life" with the ability to pass on the title. He needlessly promulgated multiple contradictory edicts. He was against popular representative government. Though, paradoxically, he believed in a US-style federalist union for South America, he was incapable of putting goals for the growth of inclusive democratic institutions above his petty enmities, as Washington did with such aplomb time after time.
(N.B. Washington was a Virginia plantation owner who freed his slaves upon his death in 1799. All U.S. slaves were freed by Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. See Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865. It was 1816, however, when Bolivar manumitted the slaves of South America, including his own.)
We also meet his longtime, forebearing lover, Manuela Sáenz, and find her to be as formidable a character as the General himself. At one point some weeks after after the General and his retinue have traveled into exile on a cortege of barges down the Magdalena, she incites civil unrest back in Santa Fe de Bogata against his enemies:
In an attempt to make her life impossible, the Ministry of the Interior had asked her to turn over the [General's] archives she had in her care. She refused and set in motion a campaign of provocations that drove the government mad. In the company of two of her warrior slavewomen [manumitted] she fomented scandals, distributed pamphlets glorifying the General, and erased charcoal slogans scrawled on public walls. It was common knowledge that she entered barracks wearing the uniform of a colonel and was apt to take part in the soldiers' fiestas as in the officers' conspiracies. The most serious rumor was that right under Urdaneta's nose she was promoting an armed rebellion to reestablish the absolute power of the General.
So a beautifully written if dense narrative that satisfies on multiple levels. Do read it. One final note, there's no magic realism here as in The Autumn of the Patriarch or One Hundred Years of Solitude. But the narrative is nonchronological which demands an attentive reader. This is no in-flight or beach read! I found it deeply satisfying....more
This is part exegesis of The Histories and part memoir of the author's own experiences as he traveled to the places Herodotus visited and wrote about.This is part exegesis of The Histories and part memoir of the author's own experiences as he traveled to the places Herodotus visited and wrote about. Kapuściński always carried a copy of Herodotus with him and it's interesting to get his views of Egypt or Lybia or Persia or Scythia more than 2,400 years after those of the 'Father of history.'...more
Highly oneiric. Revolutionary Mexico. Swift jumps from conciousness to conciousness, yet with the purpose of generating a coherent narrative. The langHighly oneiric. Revolutionary Mexico. Swift jumps from conciousness to conciousness, yet with the purpose of generating a coherent narrative. The language is spritely, sullen, erotic by turns. The old gringo, American journalist and author Ambrose Bierce, is a bitter man come to Mexico seeking death at the hands of the revolution. He meets the younger rebel General Tomas Arroyo whose innate machismo turns his relationship with the old gringo into a Game of Manhood. A game only the general seems to be playing. The old gringo fearlessly marches straight into the most dangerous faceoffs with the Federales. He seems invulnerable, god-like. The bullets don't so much as graze him. Arroyo's rebels marvel at him. Arroyo resents the gringo for stealing his thunder. In a comandeered train the general, his army, and the gringo cross the desert for a day and a night to the famous Miranda Hacienda. It was here that Arroyo was fathered by Señor Miranda. It was here Arroyo grew up and came to know intimately his nation's "aristocracy." It is in the destruction of the hacienda that the general seems to want to make a grand statement. On arrival he and the old gringo find the white woman -- the "gringa" -- arrived only hours earlier from the U.S. to teach English to the Miranda children, long since flown the coop. Her name is Harriet Winslow. She becomes Arroyo's lover. One feels she could use the workout. She positively screams uptight white anglo-saxon protestant, and the destruction of personal property is incomprehensible to her. She discounts the long history of class oppression in Mexico in a trice. Somehow she feels -- laughably -- even in the absence of the departed Mirandas, that she is responsible not only for stopping the destruction of the hacienda, but also for seeing to its restoration. (She sets the peons to ridiculously whitewashing the place.) Yet like certain characters in Anita Brookner's oeuvre, she knows she's missed much of life in her 31 years. The old gringo sees her submission to Arroyo only in terms of the general's machismo. He does not for a minute imagine the attraction this man of action might hold for Harriet. The sex is electric. As I've said elsewhere, I am no fan of sex in literature. It's almost always badly done -- but not here. Here the sex is integral, it works to push the story forward; whereas, usually, all the action of the fiction must stop for nookie time. It's almost too long, the sex. Fuentes pushes it about ten pages too far. But one can see why. It's working so well. The novel's onieric bent seamlessly blends backstory, dialogue both thought and spoken, hopes and dreams, you name it. The prose is consistently dazzling. You must read it....more
One of the few writers I have read who can show sex convincingly on the page, so that it reinforces character and extends action, and doesn't become aOne of the few writers I have read who can show sex convincingly on the page, so that it reinforces character and extends action, and doesn't become a narrative sinkhole in which entropy prevails.
Depressingly great. One of those books one knows one could never write yet still one wishes -- pointlessly -- that one could do so.
Laden with vivid detail. It moves almost flawlessly, from sequence to sequence with nary a foot put wrong in terms of diction or tone.
Relentless storytelling, like diamonds pouring endlessly from a sack. Enormous reading pleasure. A bit too lacrhymose toward the end for my taste, but this is a quibble. On the whole a shattering novel despite it conventional structure.
Erudite meditations on the Danube and the blood-soaked lands through which it winds. Danube is not a travel narrative in the classic sense. The riverErudite meditations on the Danube and the blood-soaked lands through which it winds. Danube is not a travel narrative in the classic sense. The river is here a device for writing about a mix of colorful events and persons associated with it. Magris is a critic and his assessment of cultural phenomenon along the river's course is often excellent, especially when he deigns to tell the reader what he's writing about. It's a densely allusive work.
That said, the long essay on Louis-Ferdinand Céline—who stayed at Sigmaringen Castle on the Danube when the collaborationist Vichy government was forced there by the retreating Germans—is fascinating. Céline went from "the great voice of the people" before World War 2 to that of "an iniquitous traitor, an anti-semite hunted down and reduced to the scum of the earth on a level with the Nazi butchers" afterward. Yet Magris makes a compelling argument for his greatness while at the same time acutely rendering judgement.
The section on Jean Paul was beyond me. I never got a handle on the Catherine Wheel of abstractions Magris was spinning there. If there's a problem with this book, it's that the author—this, assuming the translation is accurate—fancies himself a stylist. I'm with V.S. Naipaul on this one: "good writing doesn't draw attention to itself." Yet the book is full of interesting arcana if you're willing to endure the flights of fancy.
Magris seems to have read everything and he wants you to know it. There are short essays on Hermann Schmid's little Danube tale, Franzel the Negress, a fiction in which her white lover makes her famous through his play The Queen if Sheba which, Magris writes, "exposes the whole savage shallowness of racism." The section called "The Archivist of Affronts" tells the story of one Ferdinand Thrän—known for The Cathedral of Ulm: an Exact Description of Same, 1857—who almost destroyed the cathedral by "his obstinate belief in a 'law' of arches which he was convinced he had discovered." More interesting to this reader was Thrän's File of Rudenesses Received, whose "precision and completeness . . .may [have] given a pleasure that compensated for the repulsiveness of what is actually noted."
The insight into the life and writings of the 19th-century Austrian writer, Adalbert Stifter—a great favorite of W.G. Sebald—was most welcome, as was the overview of Sankt Florian Church and monastery where Anton Bruckner played organ and wrote his great symphonic works. Other meditations include the double suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and Maria Vetsera at Mayerling, 1889; a scathing critique of Wittgenstein's house at 19 Kundmanngasse; the split between humanity and the natural world which Magris sees lasting as long as we eat other animals; an image of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa riding to war across the stone bridge at Regensberg, ca. 1150; a consideration of the putrefactive vigor of the soil in the Central Cemetery, Vienna; and a brief overview of Marxist scholar György Lukács's life and work, especially how his adherence to Stalinism compromised him.
I started this book after finishing Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, also memoirs-cum-travelogues-cum-histories of the Danube. At first I thought that Magris's failure to cite Fermor a trifle fishy. But now I'm relatively certain that Magris, who wrote in Italian, was not influenced by Fermor.
Fermor's travels on foot along the Danube as an 18 and 19 year old in 1935-36 saw him meeting with Gypsies, interacting with locals, learning their languages (German, Romani, Hungarian, Romanian, etc.), sometimes drinking to excess, picking up girls. He often did not know from one day to the next where he would sleep. Some nights it was on a thatch of fresh tree limbs, on others in the splendor of some ducal château. At one point in the second volume Fermor rides a magnificent black stallion—Malek—across the Great Hungarian Plain. The river and its banks are much more visibly present in his books due to his gift for rich descriptive writing. One gets from Fermor a sense of the river's every turning, the vast changes in its topography as it moves more than 2000 km to its delta in the Black Sea. In Magris this travel aspect is minimal. Magris does not evoke such an intimate view of the river and its banks, much less mix it up with the common people. We hardly get to know even those friends and with whom he travels....more
Excellent. It's funny how Kawabata can drone on about cherry blossoms and camphor trees and local Kyoto festivals and yet keep one reading. A large paExcellent. It's funny how Kawabata can drone on about cherry blossoms and camphor trees and local Kyoto festivals and yet keep one reading. A large part of the fascination is looking into this foreign world that one's never known before. The customs, traditional mores seemingly under siege by callous modernity. His touch is so light. The emotional depths Kawabata plumbs with just the tiniest bits of dialogue -- this concision most of all -- holds us in thrall.
The is the story of an abandoned child, Chieko, who is found and raised by kind Kyoto shopkeepers, and her eventual reconnection by chance with her twin sister, Naeko, in post-occupation Japan. Apparently twins were once considered inauspicious in Japan. Her foster parents suffer terrible guilt because Chieko is such a fine, solicitous child. They imagine they've inflicted horrible suffering on the unknown parents when, in fact, either because of poverty or superstition, it was Chieko's parents who abandoned her. Twenty years later she's a beautiful woman who must make sense of her history.
A book which must not be rushed through, that's how beautiful the language is. It's hard to believe it was translated from the German. A book about thA book which must not be rushed through, that's how beautiful the language is. It's hard to believe it was translated from the German. A book about the will to live, among other things, and the richness of life even under horribly reduced circumstances. To read it merely as an account of life in the Gulag would be too limiting. It goes much deeper.
Late in life a gay man remembers what it was like to be transported from his family home in Romania to the Russian Gulag. It was 1945 and he was a 17-year old ethnic German and so must be made to pay for the crimes of Hitler. Romania was a combatant allied with the Axis Powers. Needless to say, this young man had nothing to do with it. Moreover, what should have been for him a memorable period of sexual awakening was in fact a time when homosexuality was a crime punishable by death, a time when Stalin--the murderer of 25 to 50 million of his own people--still ruled.
The novel is based on the true story of the poet Oskar Pastior who lived just long enough to give Herta Müller the background for the novel. That's why it's so filled with authentic facts and vivid description. Every little trick of survival is recalled. How he starved is given particular depth and resonance. With regard to the small cooking fires inmates would make to prepare meals in the evening, the narrator says:
When I had nothing to cook, the smoke snaked through my mouth. I drew in my tongue and chewed on nothing. I swallowed my spit with the evening smoke and thought about bratwurst. When I had nothing to cook, I walked close to the pots and pretended that I was on my way to brush my teeth at the well before going to bed. But by the time I put my toothbrush in my mouth I had already eaten twice. First I ate the yellow fire with the hunger of my eyes and then the smoke with the hunger of my mouth. As I ate, everything around me went still, all I could hear was the rumble of the coke ovens from the factory yard. The faster I tried to leave the well, the slower I went. I had to tear myself away from the little fires. In the rumble of the coke ovens I heard my stomach growling, the whole scene was filled with hunger. The skies sank back onto the earth, and I staggered back to the yellow light of the barrack.
A novel of blazing, indefatigable brilliance. A tale in which absolute power of a uniquely Caribbean variety corrupts its possessor absolutely. Year bA novel of blazing, indefatigable brilliance. A tale in which absolute power of a uniquely Caribbean variety corrupts its possessor absolutely. Year by year el presidenté grows ever farther from any connection with his people until he's a pampered Howard Hughes-like recluse. In his detachment he looses a succession of evil proxies on his people, who perpetrate genocides without a cause. In one, 20,000 children are murdered for their unwitting collusion in a lottery scam which el presidenté always wins. Then there's the time he literally roasts one of his generals for perceived wrongs and serves him up with fava beans and a nice chianti to the man's officers. At the start of el presidenté's hundred-year reign, he is illiterate; he signs documents with an inked thumb, like a criminal being booked. When a Catholic novice he has despoiled teaches him how to read, entire daily newspapers are produced with an print run of one copy solely for him. How, please tell me, does García Marquez keep the tone skimming adroitly between the comic and tragic? It's entertainment dripping with blood.
The reading is no simple task. You've got to want this one; you've got to have the fire in the belly! Written in a Modernist style with many of its esthetic conventions: run on sentences (stream o' consciousness), intersecting/multiple voices without identifying tags, dreams interlarded with so-called reality, with fleeting fantasy, shifting points of view, asynchrony, etc. This works well with the so-called Magic Realism the author helped pioneer, though in this context I begin to think Magic Realism's roots were in Modernism all along. There are oracular basins, seas turned to lunar dust, vanishing virgins, and lots of divination--by tarot card, palm of the hand, coffee grounds--and murderous purges resulting from it. There is also a pervasive sense of the eschatological. Its 255 pages reads like 400 since it's virtually one solid paragraph all the way through. I particularly enjoyed the sacrilegious parts; especially the move by the capricious presidenté to have his mother canonized by the Vatican. Cruelly funny stuff. Not to be missed! Your patience will be amply rewarded....more
This is the classic gothic horror haunted house story revisited with an SF twist.It's a testament to the obtuseness of mankind, particularly unemotionThis is the classic gothic horror haunted house story revisited with an SF twist. It's a testament to the obtuseness of mankind, particularly unemotional, Cold-War era, scientific man. Three scientists on the remote planet Solaris seek contact with the lone enormous creature occupying it -- the ocean. All sorts of experiments are tried over a century or more, but the planet and the humans never achieve, at least to the humans' satisfaction, adequate evidence of a measurable intellectual exchange. The ocean busies itself morphing into these massive shapes -- geometic, organic, and otherwise -- which strike the reader as expressive, but which are nevertheless inarticulate in human terms. When the scientists start bombarding the ocean with xrays, for lack of a better idea, the planet sends to each of them a visitor from an emotionally charged period of their own lives. The simulacra are derived from their memories and dreams. Kris Kelvin has just arrived on the planet. In his case, the simulacrum assumes the identical physical appearance and personality of his late wife, Rheya, who took her own life years before. The simulacra obviously constitute contact of a very high order, an enormously rich opportunity, it seems to me, to communicate one on one with the entity. But the horrified scientists never see that. They never talk to their visitors. They never come clean. Their fear drives them, purely fear, so all they can think of is a way to destroy the visitors. Therefore, they miss their chance. How sick and sad is that? This reader came to understand what was necessary after about page 100 or so. Yet the book drones on for another hundred pages. The novel is imaginative, certainly, but it runs out of ideas far too soon. The scientists never get it. One grows disgusted with them. The book never seems to end....more
Here's Dostoyevski's mode of proceeding, and it's maddening. One, here's what I'm about to tell you; two, now here I am actually telling it to you; anHere's Dostoyevski's mode of proceeding, and it's maddening. One, here's what I'm about to tell you; two, now here I am actually telling it to you; and three, now let's review what I've just told you. Every point is handled thus. The tedium! Nevertheless, it's D so I forced myself to read most of it. In the end the book fell heavily from my hands and I woke....more