’Sometimes I think,’ he told me the only time we talked somewhat seriously, ‘I’ve never looked anyone in the eye.’
And the man speaking here, Ricardo L
’Sometimes I think,’ he told me the only time we talked somewhat seriously, ‘I’ve never looked anyone in the eye.’
And the man speaking here, Ricardo Laverde, never looks you, the reader, in the eye either. Even at the end. Perhaps, even then, when you have heard the whole story, then, you realise just how much you haven’t learned about him. It’s an unmystery.
But he is a pilot.
This is a book translated from Spanish to English written by a man who is a translator of literature from French to Spanish. And ‘translation’ could certainly be considered an identifiable theme here. Not just from a language to a language, but any kind of translation of experience in the form of language into a story.
’He must’ve done something.’
But what did he do? And that’s the story of the story. I enjoyed its slow unveiling through the range of different story-telling frames Vásquez plays with. And he plays with the reader like maybe only Spanish writers do. There are some turns of phrase which come off as a little naive and twee in English, but there's this very recognisable way modern Spanish reads (In English that is ... which is all I know). Marquez looms over them all, since Cervantes seems completely different. But there's always this magic-realist lilt to it, and the way repetition is used like it's verse.
’No, wait,’ I tried to say, but it was too late, she’d got rid of the phone and left me in Aura’s hands, my voice in Aura’s hands, and my nostalgia hanging in the warm air: the nostalgia for things that weren’t yet lost.
People reading the blurb of my edition might be disappointed in the story; the ’literary-noir’ call is a bit off: more literary than noir. But that’s not Vásquez’s fault. The action is chiefly internal, but it certainly kept me ‘at it’. Sometimes there is a sense of disappointment ... but Vásquez manages to maintain this interesting sense of background foreboding and oppressive weight, the reading equivalent of living in Colombia during the Escobar years, an era that looms over the story as a whole, and, an entire generation of Colombians: our protagonist, Antonio Yammara, among them. And this kind of disappointment and exhaustion seems to be an important sense to develop. There is a generational shared experience through Escobar and his ‘stories’ (which were once all-to-visceral in nature, of course) and, especially, his place of residence.
And sometimes she asked him, ‘Do you like planes?’
Flying is an important trope in the book, as a means of legend-building, bravado, escape, living, dying and trafficking. Certainly, as an essentially destructive means of connection to the gringos it becomes self-evident. It allows one to reach out to the other, and the other to reach back: the big planes coming in, the little planes returning...
’And you, Señorita Fritts, do you know when you are going to die? I can tell you?’
And we do, of course. Death in the story is always invested with heavy dramatic irony. We know where these people are headed. We get to hear the black box recording first, then we work backwards.
And that’s where the moral ground gets murky, in the sense of agency and outcome, and the smaller people caught up in larger things for a range of different reasons. Vásquez handles these things with great style and a languid sense of character ... if, at times, a little unsubtly. His impressions of his homeland and home-city are fascinating literary travelogues easily worth the price of the fare alone...
Then I realised no one wants to hear heroic stories, but everyone likes to be told about someone else’s misery.
When it comes to titles of books that have not aged well, this one has to be up there with Nietzsche’s The Gay Science: with a Prelude in Rhymes and aWhen it comes to titles of books that have not aged well, this one has to be up there with Nietzsche’s The Gay Science: with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. When it was suggested to me by a goodreads friend, I thought that he must’ve found out about my thing for ‘The Big Lebowski’... But it turns out to be the surname of the protagonist, one William Stoner, who shares attributes with the author of the book, John Williams, e.g. insofar as being a long-term academic in an American Department of English ... so much so that there is a much more strident than normal warning-cum-dedication from the author to his former colleagues at the University of Missouri to the tune of ‘this is fictional, and I’m not taking the piss out of any of you...’
It is a book that is easy to read and strangely affecting. I cried at the end. But what these tears were for is hard to say. And I find myself thinking about Stoner at odd times of the day. Was it because of people I have known? My own (albeit even less grand) experience as a doctoral student in what passes for an English department at the turn of the millennium in Australia? Just the purity of the prose and its vision?
Maybe all these things and more. It’s certainly a kind of porn-for-literati what Williams throws on the page: literature about loving literature and cherishing it and valuing it, and its learning.
The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print—the love which he had hidden as if it was illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.
And, in the end, the book is about Meaning ... which is kind of weak to say, since I suppose everything is, in the end, but it’s appropriate, since it touches on the idea of Meaning-making. Two world wars go on in the background of Stoner’s life, and much Meaning was being made there, but Williams explores the extraordinary in the ordinary, and even a kind of ordinary that is often decked in failure and disappointment.
...in the long run, all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness that did not alter.
In the shorter term, there was recourse to learning, and there was literature for that, something that:
...changed the world which was its subject, and changed it because of its dependence on it.
There’s no classic victory for Stoner, not in career, marriage, love, family ... nothing. His efforts were futile. The results, empty. And he diminishes into nothingness. The end.
But, of course, the book is also curiously uplifting, in just the right sort of ordinary ways. There is a presence in being a presence, and there is the joy of being alive, knowing you are alive, proclaiming it through all the different ways you are capable—through lust, through learning—that you: are.
He was himself, and he knew what he had been.
The intensity of his practical involvement with language and learning, his passion and spirit for it, and then the tension of trying to communicate this to others, through words—‘...knowing something through words that could not be put in words...’—is foremost throughout his life, and the agony of coming to terms with our imperfect faculties to do this. His inadequacy is all of our inadequacies. I mean, just writing this simple review and trying to imbue it with what I want it to have in it is just another feeble example. All this hot and living stuff is there, right there, just as for Stoner ... but, then:
What was most alive withered in his words; and what moved him most became cold in the utterance.
Williams wrote this in the mid 60s, and his timing was probably poor. One can’t but help to consider his placement of Stoner back as a freshman in 1910 as some kind of review of the Academy he found himself in after his post WW2 undergraduate years. When Stoner is being leant on to pass a student called Walker who deserves to be failed, he digs his heels in. Departmental politics, professional threats and even the acknowledged futility of the gesture are not enough to persuade him otherwise.
”We can’t keep the Walkers out.”
He’s told. And they can’t. And they don’t.
Walker is a great talker, his rhetoric is fast and full and dripping, and he can skirt around the generalities of literature and English with slimy ease. But he knows nothing about the works themselves. He hasn’t really read anything ... except what has been written ABOUT them. Stoner is shocked that Walker had got to postgraduate level in English without any Greek or Latin or German or French. And they didn’t keep the Walkers out. My English departments are all post-Walker. And I kind of wish I could have had a shot at Stoner’s pre-Walker time. I cruised through, enjoying what I was doing, and getting great results and scholarships, but I was never really pressed. Not like Stoner and his ilk were.
Chaucer and Beowulf? Not in translation? What?
And how they get Stoner (with a reputation-smear claiming he was opposed to Walker because of his physical disability) would’ve been even worse today. It might have trended on Twitter, if no lions had been shot that week, and Huff Post could’ve done a feature on disability prejudice. And then his affair with a female student. Facebook would’ve been burning with Jezebel op-eds, and Mamamia could’ve followed on the currency-ebb with a Top Five Things we Hate about Stoner.
Was Williams seeing this develop in the 60s, and pitching the Walker back to the 30s as the worm inside the fruit?
Williams is also a beautiful stylist with a deep sensibility. He has the capacity, through Stoner, to bring the humanity and shared human plight out of even the least likable characters, such as Lomax, Walker and Edith (Stoner’s wife). His touches with character and scene are deft and full of meaning. His similes seem to ring like tuning forks.
...the man’s eyes were gray and flat like pieces of glazed crockery.
He is a writer’s writer for a reader’s reader. And his openness and subtlety rescues him from any sense of stuffiness or ‘in’ effect.
It is nice to think that Williams’ work has been rescued. This book sold only 2000 copies and went out of print quickly. And he died in 1985. Stoner’s last living act is to pick up and hold on to his own failed book, and, when he dies, it ‘...fell into the silence of the room.’
The room remains silent, but Stoner has been picked back up.
But let’s start with the epigraph. It begins with a famous verbal quote from Gertrude Stein; but, acc
’We all ought to make sacrifices for literature.’
But let’s start with the epigraph. It begins with a famous verbal quote from Gertrude Stein; but, according to Hemingway’s notebooks, it was first said by a garage mechanic to Stein as “c’est un generation perdu” regarding those that were around 22 to 30 at the time. "No one wants them. They are no good. They were spoiled." He meant the first war, and both Jake and Brett have been spoiled by it in different ways. They have both been remade, and Brett has been talked about as being Hemingway’s take on ‘the new woman’ as the first wave of feminism started to recede back into the sea..
She was looking into my eyes with that way she had of looking that made you wonder whether she really saw out of her own eyes.
And Jake, ‘...a foreigner, an Englishman,’ (any foreigner was an Englishman), ‘have given more than your life.’ He is no longer a man, physically, in that sexual sense, and that’s easy to dismiss if you are a woman, I observe, after the few titters of laughter you get when you mention it to one ... and that Jake has already made you aware of are coming. To another man, putting himself in his place, he has given more than his life. And Hemingway knew these men (post-men?) from his ambulance service in world war one. He should be the hero. But instead, he sits outside of things, and there is something terrible in his relationship with the highly sexed world around him, and the damaged New Woman. There’s a deep-seated mutual antagonism that runs along the over-narrative., that the damned most desire company, and in each other they recognise the same level of damnation, or, alternatively, being lost.
At one point they are even looked on as pimp and whore, and Jake understands the vision almost instinctively. Does he run to Madrid because he loves her? He is lost without her, certainly, but just as much for the hate of it as the love. He can live with his burden while he’s in the light, while he is distracted. But the dark, the moment of being most alone, most lost as just a he trying to hold on to being something, this is where the depth of the human turmoil lies.
And Brett, does she reject the more ‘old woman’ life she’s offered with love and stability because she’s a champion of ‘new woman-ness’? No, it’s for the same reason.
’I know,’ said the Count. ‘That is the secret. You must get to know the values.’
In the second part of the epigraph, we get a chunk of Ecclesiastes, this atheist’s favourite book of the Bible. Human life is cyclic, just as the rest of nature is cyclic. So you die, so what? You aren’t really much anyway. The sun also rises, and it goes down. Get over yourself. And this can be a useful platform for those with faith in God, for they can springboard joyfully from their Faith into their oneness with God that is more than just them-self. But for the post-Nietzschian? The sun also rising even though you’ve had your balls blown off is something to cut through the night and bury itself in your demand for a soul.
Where are the values?
In the introduction to my edition, Colm Tóibίn writes this about Hemingway’s style:
...and make the sentences and the paragraphs he wrote ostensibly simple, filled with repetitions and odd variations, charged with a sort of hidden electricity, filled with an emotion which the reader could not easily find in the words themselves, emotion that seemed to live in the space between words, or in the sudden endings of certain paragraphs.
Hemingway once said that the hero of the novel is the land. And here, just briefly, he demonstrates both that, and the above ideas from Tóibίn:
...and we were going way up close along a hillside, with a valley below and hills stretched off back toward the sea. You couldn’t see the sea. It was too far away. You could see only hills and more hills, and you knew where the sea was.
And from the land emerges the fiesta, a period of ‘no consequences’ where Jake expresses the idea that the values, once again, are in flux. But through all this is a motif of pure consequence: the bullfight. Men could face the bull briefly in the corrida, but then there were the bullfighters, who would face them to life or death.
Brett saw how something that was beautiful done close to the bull was ridiculous if it were done a little way off.
Hemingway’s love for bullfighting has been well-documented, of course; as has the growing tide of western opinion against it, but this only further cements it in as ‘the wonderful nightmare’ and how it works for the story. When Romero, the bullfighter, tells Brett that the bulls are his best friends, she responds:
’You kill your friends?’ she asked.
’Always,’ he said in English, and laughed. ‘So they don’t kill me.’
Nobody really learns anything. Nobody really progresses. There are no epiphanies. But still, the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose. Hemingway doesn’t manufacture some kind of false novel-esque buffet for you.
He wants you to face the bull of it.
...but maybe, something has happened anyway. Brett has decided to not be a bitch and ruin children. Jake has realised how crap life would have been with her even if he had genitals. But then again ... she probably still will be, and he still has to face another night...
’Oh, don’t go to hell,’ I said. ‘Stick around. We’re just starting lunch.’
Wenster was a political refugee from so many different countries that he sometimes awoke in the night in a panic, thinking that he had mistakingly gon
Wenster was a political refugee from so many different countries that he sometimes awoke in the night in a panic, thinking that he had mistakingly gone back to one on the list.
Koningsberger drives this short fiction through the chiefly psychological drama of the revolutionary character called A. He is a kind of an archetype, being the young socialist student born into privilege but dedicating himself to eradicating it, though he is constantly caught between his background and his foreground, both politically and romantically.
He had the tendency, unfortunate for a new member of the committee, to like if not the rich themselves, at least their activities and surroundings, and to dislike the poor; a woman in rags toting a baby, barefoot children, made him feel sadistic rather than compassionate. His socialism, then, had the impatience and unfriendliness of a fashionable doctor forced to attend a tramp run over in the street.
And he shifts between being sure an unsure, dedicated and aloof, focused and fuzzy. Through it all, Koningsberger is able to capture this terrific sense of interior humanity that contrasts completely with the imagined exterior of A. While the denouement felt haphazard, it folded nicely into the drama.
...the only time he felt himself coming in a girl who stared at the ceiling and then jumped up and went to wash from a basin at the window.
This book was a chance pickup for me, in and amongst a bulk lot of second-hand books, but well worth the read. Koningsberger reveals himself as a subtle and highly engaging stylist of English, as well as having a breadth of understanding of the revolutionary milieu, whereby both destruction and creation must go hand in hand, and morality shifts back and forward between abstract and concrete quite suddenly and quite terribly at times.
He walked towards the pointed rifles; a rifle seen in foreshortening is a fearful tool. A red face behind it is grinning.
I thought again of Daniel ... and, for the first time, I was tempted to pity him, without, however, respecting him.
If someone would have suggested to
I thought again of Daniel ... and, for the first time, I was tempted to pity him, without, however, respecting him.
If someone would have suggested to me that the novel, as a genuine art form, was dead, that it had effectively died in the 80s sometime; or, at the very least, it had been in what amounted to a slow, wasting coma since then, and would never really emerge, and we may as well flick a switch and be done with the whole fucking thing; I would have found very little to argue agin ‘im.
Now, however, I would toss him a copy of this novel.
If I had it on me. Which would be unlikely. I mean, I would have had to be standing right in front of my bookcase.
And if I had a second copy.
And I’d still want it back, I would impress upon them.
After hearing about Houellebecq I had already kinda vowed that I would no longer read any more French until I could read it in French. Then a friend waves a second-hand copy of this book in English in front of my face and it’s ten bucks in Federation Square and I cave in like a Chinese coalmine...
’It was an ex-boyfriend...’ she said in English, as if to convey that it wasn’t very important.
Because, really, I wanted to know if I was going to love him like I thought I was going to love him. So, surely, those gods who still care about such things as vows, even literary vows, would cut this brother a break on this one, huh? Huh?
And I do love him. In English, at least, thanks to Gavin Bowd.
It’s amusing to observe that it’s always the enemies of freedom who find themselves, at one moment or another, most in need of it.
Houellebecq has been called everything. He has been branded with the ‘ists and the ‘phobes. It’s amazing that he’s published at all, really. Maybe it’s a French thing? And you can see where socio-political ire can certainly be drawn in this novel. You just need to peruse some of the review-fodder on this site. The primary narrative focal character is white and a man and a heterosexual and ageing. And he’s brutally honest about a process of these things in the society he occupies ... and is occupied by.
To increase desires to an unbearable level whilst making the fulfilment of them more and more inaccessible: this was the single principle upon which Western society was based.
And, yeah, he obsesses over his dick, as in, he would like it to work. Wow. How the fuck does this not feature in more novels with some degree of interiority of an ageing man? That’s what you should ask yourself if that’s what you’re whining about. There is something both beautiful and savage in the way in which Houellebecq plays with the sense of polemic in his fiction here, and when you read the angry people, he seems to have written these people’s rants too. They seem like his characters. You could slot them into the book in most cases, no problem at all, since he has this sense of humanity that defeats them even in their base expression. It’s cute, but terrifying too.
...this opposition between eroticism and tenderness appeared to me as it truly is: one of the worst examples of bullshit of our time, one of those that signs, definitively, the death warrant of civilization.
And it is about civilization, and the civilised, that Houellebecq writes about. We get to read work from three different Daniels, the first of which is a stand-up ‘shock’ comic who ends up hating the sound of laughter. The other two are different versions of him from the future.
...then they grow weary, little by little, narcissistic competition takes the upper hand, and in the end they fuck even less than at the time of strong religious morality.
And Daniel diminishes before our eyes, but he fights, and he rages against the dying of the light. Even when he gives in, even when he goes down, he does it in a way that is completely undignified and unwholesome, which is a kind of victory, the only kind possible in Houellebecq’s world here.
It’s sad, the shipwreck of a civilization, it’s sad to see its most beautiful minds sink without a trace — one begins to feel ill at ease in life, and one ends up wanting to establish an Islamic republic.
Houellebecq plays with the sense of the individual and being a man (that is, in the specific visceral sense, not ‘masculinities’) as well as the role religion (and the sense of the religious), science (and the sense of the scientific) play and interact with consumer-capitalism. Once a fully working and well-marketed model can operate between all these realms, then humanity becomes neohumanity, and humanity is no more than a then ending whimper.
And there is much about neohumanity that is already among us, the Supreme Sister, and there’s plenty of them already, the kind of new-puritanism that always runs, paradoxically, across the crass, advertising-ploy of hyper-sexualisation. Where it's all '...a question of casting aside any notion of poltical choice, the source ... of 'false but violent' passions.
And in and among all this, there is Love. But not necessarily as-narrative, but as the instant, as not an island that exists firmly and resolutely there, solid, a refuge, among teeming seas; but as its possibility, the idea that such a thing can-be despite it not being able to. So that maybe the neohuman can be human?
...this had happened all the same, despite us, despite me ... we had not surrendered, to the end we had refused to collaborate and to accept a system that was designed to destroy us.
Houellebecq, for his part, does not seem to delight in the kinds of things he explores regarding humanity. He seems as much horrified by a Daniel1 as any other version. But there's a sense of pity, and a sense of hope, too; even if a sad hope. It really is frighteningly powerful stuff, and may even convince you that the sex and colour and age and sexuality of an author is not the driving force behind the work? No? Unlike for Supreme Sister...
The problem is, she's both right and wrong, but wrong most horribly.
Et je vais lire La possibilité d'une île un jour ... en langue française. ...more
This review pertains only to ‘Billy Budd, Sailor’.
Passion, and passion at its profoundest, is not a thing demanding a palatial stage whereon to play i
This review pertains only to ‘Billy Budd, Sailor’.
Passion, and passion at its profoundest, is not a thing demanding a palatial stage whereon to play its part.
I find it interesting that two writers like Melville and Whitman co-existed, and how they must have co-existed; and, while the latter won the war of style and almost single-handedly cut from the log of world literature a new and ever-lasting American brand of aesthetic energy and poetics, the former that failed, and remained poised always in the before-hand, produced the true great American work of writing, and while maybe just as few people have read Moby-Dick as Leaves of Grass, many more will have an awareness of the former, even if their own writing is married more firmly to the latter.
I came to this short work of fiction though through my political anarchist channels, and through my love of aforementioned tome, Moby-Dick, a novel I would rank in my top five ever written. And while this work did not hit such heights of human insight and subtle universal irony, it was a worthy read, with achingly beautiful sentences once you allow your reading breath to match the demand of the stiff-walking pace. It’s a kind of inner reading ear. You need to let it settle in a bit.
After scanning their faces he stood less as mustering his thoughts for expression, than as one inly deliberating how best to put them to well-meaning men not intellectually mature, men with whom it was necessary to demonstrate certain principles that were axioms to himself.
And it’s worth it—even just for ‘inly’.
There is certainly an anti-Statist them to be drawn out of this story, but it strikes me more of a kind of Old Testament critique of the vanity of man requiring a King-on-earth (see Saul...) instead of the great King of Earth, or Nature. And this theme is certainly not hidden away in the poop deck. Budd is snatched away into military service for the King on the ‘Bellipotent’ (Mighty in War) from a free merchant vessel called ‘Rights-of-Man’, and there’s angelic/god-like language used regularly to describe Budd, the ‘Handsome Sailor’ model (and Melville was writing before the Carry On films, so let’s click pause on the homoerotic angle, please...) almost like some Edenic Adam of pre-Fall purity and grace ... with his one and only flaw a flaw of communication: he stutters, but only when put under pressure, like many people so-afflicted who have fought the affliction back.
But there’s just as much a Hellenic vibe as Hebrew:
Life in the foretop well agreed with Billy Budd. There, when not actually engaged on the yards yet higher aloft, the topmen, who as such had been picked out for youth and activity, constituted an aerial club lounging at ease against the smaller stun’sails rolled up into cushions, spinning yarns like the lazy gods, and frequently amused with what was going on in the busy world of the decks below.
Budd can do anything, and is loved by all, no matter what he does or where he goes ... with a notable exception, and through this, comes the conflict. Ag’in the Handsome Sailor comes Jemmy Legs, the Belipotent’s Master-at-Arms, John Claggart. He is an Iago-like figure who Budd, due to his purity, has not the ability to suss out. He has been...
...dropped into a world not without some man-traps and against whose subtleties simple courage, lacking experience and address and without any touch of defensive ugliness, is of little avail; and where such innocence as man is capable of does yet in a moral emergency not always sharpen the faculties or enlighten the will.
And his judge, Captain ‘Starry’ Vere, is a learned man of both compassion and understanding, but must always fall back on the King as his ruler, so that any offence ends with that sense of service, even if to hold with a sentence is to cross Nature (God) itself.
”Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!”
There is an irony (albeit a little ham-fisted) in play regarding the nature of man in relation to power. The English are at war with the French, and a revolutionary spirit is at work among the common men of the soldiery, not to mention the fact that many of them are prisoners forced to serve, ‘impressed men’, and fight against those that were liberated from the Bastille... Yet, since Nature and the heavens et al are regularly danced with here, a wider sense of power and servitude could be taken from the narrative.
”Be direct, man; say impressed men.”
And this line worked on me heavily. We are impressed upon and we are also impressed by things that then we follow, perhaps into war, or even a metaphorical war. An impression can be from both within and without. And it is Vere’s line. The one who works out the King’s justice over God’s, and has God’s worked on him above the King’s.
An anarchist is not necessarily an atheist, but the two tend to go hand-in-hand in contemporary politics. And it’s in the manner of Budd’s demise that the contemporary anarchist will have little association with, and find it’s propaganda just as thick as that of the King’s version of events...
Nevertheless, its aesthetic engine is as pure as a Handsome Sailor.
The back-cover blurb, reproduced in the goodreads description, above, is one of the most grossly inadequate and misleadBrighton Rock is a love story.
The back-cover blurb, reproduced in the goodreads description, above, is one of the most grossly inadequate and misleading ones I have ever read. You keep waiting for a raging gang war to rage, but it becomes pretty obvious that Pinkie is not being underestimated like the anti-hero of an action flick, about to cut loos any moment with a shotgun and a steel katana ... his ambition far exceeds his criminal capacities. He’s a loser. A sociopath. A barely-human (if human...) loser.
And he meets another loser, who is a little more human. She is Rose, who would smell as sweet by any other name.
Now, while I fell in love with Ida Arnold early on, it quickly became apparent that it was a brief infatuation, like we enjoyed some lust overnight in betwixt her brass bedposts, and that was it. She became a little too much the paragon of virtue---the Angel of Right. Pinkie wore his Evil like Satan should: with a sense of regular discomfort and spikes of thrill. As Miltonesque warriors they square off well.
’You leave her alone,’ the woman said, ‘I know all about you.’
Get behind me Satan?
Pinkie feels nostalgia for her, and for ‘darkest sin of all’: suicide. He ends similarly to Milton’s Satan. It doesn’t seem like death, or even suicide: more transformation:
It was as if he had been withdrawn suddenly by a hand out o any existence---past or present---whipped away into zero---nothing.
Pinkie doesn’t seem human, his birthplace is lost (like Paradise?) and the most basic human functions disgust him. He is not even interested in humanity most of the time. Only near the end does he think: ‘...he had never before felt this desire to understand.’
...the slatey eyes were touched with the annihilating eternity from which they had come and to which he went.
Can you have sympathy or the devil? A creature bound in the habit of hate?
It’s his actions that set the ball rolling, and Ida’s further actions that keep the ball in play, but ... to labour it further: Rose is the ball. It is over Rose they fight. Ida comes away believing she has won, but the final chapter throws a dazzling little sprinkle of vitriol on that. Why does the priest ask Rose to pray for him? Because of the love she has experienced, which exceeds any that he could reach: that of being prepared to be punished both now and eternally because someone else is ... but not for you.
She walked rapidly in the thin June sunlight towards the worst horror of all.
Greene is a brilliant stylist, who sometimes writes a sentence that you reread a few times just for the beauty of it, and while the overall pacing can be off-putting, this story smacks of enough brilliance to join Moby-Dick in my Where Have You Been All My Life shelf. ...more
There was always a sly voice inside me saying, 'There is no teacup.'
I've got a lot of of time for Roth, and I've had this book on the shelf, unread, s
There was always a sly voice inside me saying, 'There is no teacup.'
I've got a lot of of time for Roth, and I've had this book on the shelf, unread, since its release, and now I read a review of the film version telling me how it '...doesn't work as twenty-first century theatrical fare, as it's too impolitic to be celebrated in art-house theaters and too esoteric to be featured in today's sequel-driven multiplexes', and that's sort of like saying, to me, YOU, YOU SHOULD SEE THIS FILM, so I read the book.
It's a compelling story. Not Roth's best work, perhaps, but certainly interesting, aesthetically powerful and frequently playful. And certainly better than so much stuff on the shelves. And because its Roth, I'd be happy to read it like it was about Roth, and his ilk; you know, the (in his case, getting there...) Dead White Men brigade. Those that must be scorned. The humbled.
People would laugh at him because it was him.
They're so pathetic, huh? You know, and there so obsessed with their cocks, too. And they want to have sex. Often with younger women.
But, because they're artists and not sociologists, they're self-examination as members of humanity is so much more beautiful and terrifying and worth reading than the frightened pedestrians can manage. Their one-day-Deadness, their Whiteness, their Man-ness. Even those things. That's another reason why this is worth reading. If, like me, you've spent around thirty-seven seconds reading some guy's parody of Roth in a lefty rag, or twenty-seven seconds scanning the first two snarky paragraphs about Roth on a girl's blog somewhere, then this is worth the three hours to read on top of them, to seal them off.
Imagine, for a moment, Thomas Pynchon and Kenneth Cook sat down in an outback pub, one haunted by Banjo Patterson’s‘Tell us a tale ta start the day.’
Imagine, for a moment, Thomas Pynchon and Kenneth Cook sat down in an outback pub, one haunted by Banjo Patterson’s ghost, and decided to collaborate on a story to poke some harmless fun at Isaac Asimov…
This is a fictional backdrop for Kingsley McGlew’s Distance, but one that fits like the seam of a cricket ball into the hand of an A-grade spinner. Aussie tall story-thickness, sporting metaphors and thongs mix space uneasily with dreamscape androids and space-travel, the kinds that would’ve made David Bowie blanche, and maybe call for a strong pot of coffee.
As the title would suggest, and the author often re-states—sometimes unnecessarily—a variety of distances are explored, along with their relative closenesses. Relationships between people, between ideas, between philosophies and between viewpoints expand and contract, and Hans Angel struggles with controlling these things, the need for control, whether control is important, and the kind of free-fall gravity-based consequences that can arise from the distances that so develop. For Angel, perhaps like for all of us, it is easy enough to fall, but harder to chart the space between where-from and where-to.
And, in the end, what that space means.
And perhaps McGlew’s answer appears too conventional, but the question he has posed, and its delivery, is anything but.
McGlew exhibits a type of subtle science-fiction that levels a modernist challenge to the notion of the speculative: Structurally, the notion of who speaks is often called into question—since this is another distance—and the narrative style uses a mix of free-flowing Aussie yarn all the way to a kind of mechanistic staccato series of simple sentences, like action reduced to binary commands.
Maybe McGlew sometimes oversteps the boundary between flowing story-telling and dramatic style where the method is more available than the means, but once you’ve made the leap with him it’s as if you’re tandem sky-diving with his protagonist: there’s nowhere else to go.
I bought this book for my eldest son (but had a good sneaky glance through before hand) and will probably end up buying another copy for myself. Not sI bought this book for my eldest son (but had a good sneaky glance through before hand) and will probably end up buying another copy for myself. Not so much even for the poetry itself, since I have most of it already in other volumes, but for: Bloom's brilliant and erudite, challenging and politically-empty aesthetic-based readings on the works and workers; his introduction to the volume (which is worth the price by itself); and just to have the poetry he has selected all in the one place, along with his framing materials, so different to everything that is out there at the moment, where edification and diversity-as-demand reign king. Bloom is worth your time, even if you hate him; and maybe particularly if you hate him. Creatively mis-read him. Go on. That's literature....more
Once, Lawrence was a king. He was important. Even in the 1970s, he remained a regular on Literature curriculums. Th
And the rainbow stood on the earth.
Once, Lawrence was a king. He was important. Even in the 1970s, he remained a regular on Literature curriculums. Then, gradually, his grip loosened. His fingers tired from hanging on to the ledge, or they were plucked, one by one, by some grinning creature. Apart from the odd film adaption of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he was let go. He fell. And, judging by many of the reviews here, ’twas a good thing to... Maybe now that beards are back, perhaps ... ? Alas, no, the world is not ready for a Lawrence revival. He is an artist, and an artist isn’t always easy. We prefer easier pleasures these days. We’ve been taught to. And we’ve been taught to be suspicious of more difficult ones, and those who champion them.
And I champion them.
This is only my second Lawrence novel, my first being the aforementioned much smaller, quicker and more breathless Lady Chat’s. But I ended up reading that twice and really wanted to tackle another. So, when I saw second hand copy for 50 cents at an op shop, I took the op.
But where was she, that she seemed so absent?
People often go missing in this book, chiefly on an internal, psychological level. The difficulty people find in this book, and I still found in it, of course, is how it treats both character and time. Lawrence is a master of both in a strict literary narrative sense, which is one of the reasons he should still be on every solid Literature syllabus. We track three generations of characters, three Brangwens in particular, and Lawrence focuses on many different points of their lives, and skims through others; people meet then part, then other sections of their lives connect later on, that might have even happened before; but the chief issue at large is the idea of the ‘self’, so that even the same character, at different points of time, appears to be a different character, who happens to bear the same name.
I’ll focus on Urusla Brangwen, the third of the trio, since she is perhaps the most overt example of Lawrence’s play and examination. Ursula goes through a range of phases in her life, or different versions of Ursula, more accurately, in interaction with those around her, and the world around her, and Lawrence matches his style brilliantly to the various Ursulas he occupies. The aesthetic energy ebbs and flows, but always sustains such a sense of bravado in its suitability to the moment. And sometimes, this kind of dedication to the art of representing not just ideas of people, but people themselves, in words, can grate on the contemporary reader. When Ursula is at her most introspective, we get some very heavy lines
He was a consummation, a being infinite. Self was a oneness with the infinite. To be oneself was a supreme gleaming triumph of infinity.
And when she is on the verge, or in and about, what they once called ‘madness’ or being ‘beside yourself’, we get some very confused and disordered paragraphs. Each time, Ursula, like us, thinks she is the definitive Ursula—even sometimes right in the midst of the maelstrom of transformation. And each time she is right. And each time she is proven wrong.
I will mention a couple of interesting motifs are worth exploring in terms of Lawrence’s project during Ursula’s time at the narrative helm, though there are many more. One is the idea of being real, or remaining true to what you are, and letting the world around you respond to that; or, realising what the world around you is like, what the world is truly, and adapting your-self to it. The motif is introduced most strongly when Ursula is introducing her teacher/lover, Winifred, to her Uncle Tom, and they discuss the colliery that Tom is manager of, and how the workers die and are so poorly treated, and how their women respond to it.
The women knew it right enough, and take it for what it’s worth. One man or another, it doesn’t matter all the world. The pit matters. Round the pit there will always be the sideshows.
The men adjust to the world of The Pit. They live in it without a sense of willing change. Both Tom and Winifred understand how bad this is... ‘...cynically reviling the monstrous state yet adhering to it...’ Ursula loses Winifred to Tom, and, The Pit. They both serve the machine of life, they... ‘...worshipped the impure abstraction, the mechanisms of matter...’ whereas this Ursula wants to reorder the machine. She wants to pick apart matter itself.
The other motif is Lawrence’s use of light and dark in the relationship between Ursula and Skrebensky. Firstly, there are Platonic overtones regarding Ursula’s idea of normal society as people gathered around a campfire in the darkness:
...ignoring always the vast darkness that wheeled round about, with half revealed shapes lurking on the edge.
Yea, and no man dared even throw a firebrand into the darkness.
The light of the campfire is ‘...an intensely gleaming light of knowledge’ which the current Ursula feels is an attraction to only those without the courage to face the dark ... the unmitigated Real. They are cowards.
Later, Skrebensky, who has returned from the Boer War describes African darkness (in a very Conradian manner) as:
...massive and fluid with terror—not fear of anything—just fear. One breathes it, like a smell of blood. The blacks know it. They worship it, really, the darkness.
And then, on the threshold of fornication:
...in the utter, dark kiss, that triumphed over them both, subjected them, knitted them into one fecund nucleus of the fluid darkness.
One feels the hand of Nietzsche, one feels the hand of Freud; but one is also transported by a narrative energy that Lawrence alone possesses. The prose regularly dips into poetry, and the repetitions that some people here lampoon are part of the mood, the development and devilment of a psyche through art and artifice.
Why must one climb the hill? Why must one climb?
Ursula almost becomes Sisyphus, and maybe we must imagine her happy.
If, in spite of so many efforts to create a language and bring myths to life, I never manage to rewrite The Wrong Side and the Right Side, I shall have achieved nothing.
Albert Camus arrives in Stockholm with wife, Francine, in 1957 to accept Nobel Prize
First published in 1937 in a very limited print run, Camus’ first work is a Lyrical Essay in parts. The 1958 preface to its republication, the year after his Nobel prize, is full of recognisable quotes, particularly on the art and craft of writing; a topic he takes up with some gusto, since he had been refusing to have this book republished due to his artistic ‘vanity’. Words he uses to describe his own writing include ‘awkward’, ‘pompous’ and ‘clumsy’. But, he also writes:
...there is more love in these awkward pages than all those that have followed.
The Essay is in five parts: Irony, Between Yes and No, Death in the Soul, Love of Life, and The Wrong Side and the Right Side. In a broad, Camusian thematic sense, looking back from the privileged knowledge of where his thought will go, we move from how meaning shifts; what life is considering this instability; Despair; Love; and, finally, what this means for being human in the sense of moral engagement. I am going to mostly focus on the development of Camus' ideas, but take the 'Lyrical' part of the idea of the 'Essay' for granted as absolutely and fundamentally successful, even in translation, obviously; such a powerful mode of writing for Camus, so energetic and languid at the same time in its astonishing beauty and knife-keen ability to cut open moments, places, people and ideas all at once.
‘Irony’ brings together three character studies, and none of them fit together.
A woman you leave behind to go to the movies, an old man to whom you stop listening, a death that redeems nothing, and then, on the other hand, the whole radiance of the world. Here are three destines, different and yet alike. Death for us all, but his own death to each.
And herein lies the irony that Camus explores through his lyrical mode—and the sentences, even when thick with despair, have the kind of drenching light-and-dark beauty of a Caravaggio squeezed into ink. It’s the additional meaning to all meaning, that there is both meaning in meaninglessness, and in reverse. This is the basis of existential estrangement. It is the birthplace of that thing he will one day call the Absurd.
The final of the three character sketches—the death that redeems nothing—is also heavily autobiographical in nature, based on his overbearing grandmother in Algiers, and how she ruled.
‘Between Yes and No’ could be read as a prequel to L’Etranger (The Stranger/The Outsider). Here is Meursault while his mother was alive, and his approach to life still being formulated in his mind.
...I recall not a moment of past happiness but a feeling of strangeness.
In the face of estrangement, pre-Meursault grapples with the idea of affirming the act of living or negating it. Negation is more attractive...
There is a dangerous virtue in the word simplicity. And tonight I can understand a man wanting to die because nothing matters anymore when one sees through life completely.
But affirmation becomes almost a demand of him through experience...
Since this hour is like a pause between yes and no, I leave hope or disgust with life for another time. Yes, only to capture the transparency and simplicity of paradises lost—in an image. ...the feeling that the whole absurd simplicity of the world has sought refuge here.
...and finishes with a position that appears to dovetail nicely with the Meursault as we know him from L’Etranger:
...what wells up in me is not the hope of better days but a serene and primitive indifference to everything and to myself.
‘Death in the Soul’ was based on Camus’ own trip to Prague, and is a precursor to ‘A Happy Death’—which in turn was a precursor to ‘L’Etranger’, so once again, there are shades of Meursault, though this unnamed protagonist is far more involved and introspective, and reminded me of Dostoevsky’s protagonist from ‘Notes from Underground’. Travel narrative is now used as a motif to investigate estrangement; our protagonist is struck by his inability to exist in Prague, where even the elements conspire against him.
I visited churches, palaces and museums, tried to soften my distress in every work of art. A classic dodge: I wanted my rebellion to melt into melancholy. But in vain. As soon as I came out, I was a stranger again.
So religion, politics and art only obfuscate and distract him momentarily. He can be reading the instructions on the shaving cream he has already been using for a month while someone is dead next door. But then a move from Prague to Vicenza in Italy seems to make all the difference. He is happy, but he cannot shake the sense of longing and loss: ‘...a mystery hangs in the sky from which beauty and indifference descend.’
It was and yet was not the anguish I had felt in Prague.
He recognises that nothing has essentially changed, just as with the churches, palaces and museums; here is another firmament: nature itself, he is still Undergound.
...the confrontation between my deep despair and the secret indifference of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.
Camus has written ‘Love of Life’ before ‘The Death of the Soul’, but chose to place it after in the publication, maybe because it begins in a more sublime mode, albeit more in the milieu of humanity than nature. Now we’re in Palma, Spain; another travel narrative, the overt stranger in a strange land, but now a reveler, albeit a thoughtful one, of course... The protagonist moves from humanity out into nature, and there is further dramatization of the central project: ratifying an absurd brokenness between what is apparent and what simply is.
If the languages of these countries harmonized with what echoed deeply within me, it was not because it answered my questions but because it made them superfluous. ...this Nada whose birth is possible only at the sight of landscapes crushed by the sun. There is no love of life without despair of life.
We embrace loving as mode for living, something that is so abstract and ridiculously human, but then, we always end up thirsty, despite it. We are still bound by concrete.
Finally, a conclusive chapter of the same title as the book itself, and the shortest at only four pages long.
...why wonder if something is dying or if men suffer, since everything is written on this window where the sun sheds its plenty as a greeting to my pity?
We fall down into truth, and awareness; to live between sides, to gaze just as squarely at the light as at its opposition, whether that is the dark or death. The tension exists, so, in the parlance of our times, Camus says: deal with it. You are wrong, and you are right.
One man contemplates and another digs his grave: how can we separate them? Men and their absurdity? But here is the smile of the heavens. The light swells and soon it will be summer. But here are the eyes and the voices of those I must love. I hold onto the world with every gesture, to men with all my gratitude and pity. I do not want to choose between the right and the wrong sides of the world, and I do not like a choice to be made.
The third Lyrical Essay ‘Summer’ (L’ Eté). FOUR STARS
Of the three books of lyrical essays in this book, ‘Summer’ is the least cohesive as a work as a whole. While the theme of Algeria holds many of the essays together, and the further themes of nature and man-in-nature still interweave, they cover such a wide period of Camus’ writing life (from 1939 to 1953) that it never really felt like a single essay-of-chapters-that-were-also-essays in the way that ‘The Wrong Side and the Right Side’ and ‘Nuptials’ did.
However, there is still much to love. Each work is still powerful in its own right, with perhaps much more variation in style, particularly as Camus’ style as a writer was maturing. And there is a little bit of repetition, but it does so beautifully, with arrangements of words that just feel like champagne-slushie poured across the back of your mouth, that you could forgive it ... but, still, kill off bluntly goodreads-star...
The first essay, ‘The Minotaur, or Stopping in Oran’ is the closest Camus comes to writing a genuine travelogue ... there were brief moments I even thought of Bill Bryson hovering beside me like a shade. And, indeed, it is written in 1939, so that, in 1953, Camus feels he needs to distance the essay a little for the then-contemporary reader with a short introductory paragraph, that ends:
Oran, a happy and realistic city, no longer needs writers. It is waiting for tourists.
Much of this piece is reminiscent of the final essay in ‘Nuptials’—‘The Desert’.
To escape from poetry and rediscover the peacefulness of stones we need other desert...
The theme of nature’s elements are again being drawn out against a backdrop of human civilization, and the idea of existing without life being contrasted with the demands of life. The stone, in particular, is mentioned regularly to contrast humanity.
But innocence needs sand and stone. And man has forgotten how to live with them.
How tempting to merge oneself with these stones, to mingle with this burning, impassive universe ... a deep instinct that is neither for destruction nor creation. Simply the longing to resemble nothing.
And, of course, the sun is always involved, particularly in the heating of the stone, in giving it colour and wind giving shape, but with nothing else. It is what holds the minotaur at bay, in its labyrinth. But will all these natural themes are being explored, they are being locked into a very specific time and place. We get some beautiful, lyrical descriptions of humble and fantastic places in Oran, a town, everything from cinemas full of lurid advertising to boxing matches. Oran is a town Camus spent much time in, and he delivers many a back-handed compliment, and even touches on the rivalry between his own hometown, Algiers, and this one, the hometown of his second wife.
Their rivalry is all the stronger for being based on nothing.
And to Ariadne’s thread and the Minotaur. Already, Camus has found ‘...the minotaur of boredom’ in Oran, and it is suggested, that Aridane’s thread leads one away from the Minotaur, just as much towards. ‘To be spared one must say “yes” to the minotaur.’ These people are becoming people of stone, uncreative but also undestructive, a kind of Zen ideal. When, at the end, Camus, ‘the initiate’ picks up a small stone, it’s a soft as a flower. He realise that...
For the initiate, the world is no heavier to carry than that stone. The burden of Atlas is easy; all one need do is choose his moment.
‘The Almond Trees’ is a short piece from 1940, still in the dark of the war, where Camus tussles with the idea that there could ever be some sort of beauty, some sort of human art, retained at the conclusion to such a conflict. Could ever we...
...find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls.
The mind might have been able to conquer the sword, but can it ever conquer the tank? Camus optimism, history does bear out, but maybe less so his hope that force should always, in future, be serving the mind.
When we get to ‘Prometheus in the Underworld’ (1946), the war has ended, but Camus fears for how Europe is responding to the aftermath.
Prometheus was the hero how loved man enough to give them fire and liberty, technology and art. Today, mankind needs and cares only for technology.
How would he feel about 2013?
In many ways, this begins far more darkly than ‘The Almond Trees’. Camus worries that obsessive behaviour is rife, and the leftist focus on a sterile History will destroy all the other gifts of the old Greek rebel. In fact, while Camus’ Absurd cycle of books are associated with Sisyphus, his Rebel cycle will become associated with Prometheus in a similar way. Camus has no problem with the idea of history, but not a slavish devotion above-all-else, and if such terrible focus is required of us, if we must sterilise the ground, then we must also retain...
...the strength to make the heather grow again.
To keep a faith in man, not discourse, is Camus’ optimistic conclusion. It is this kind of faith that kept Prometheus...
...harder than his rock and more patient than his vulture.
‘A Short Guide to Towns Without a Past’ (1947) is Camus’ more general ideas on both Algiers and Oran, Algeria as a whole, especially when compared to France, and how ‘a past’ operates in the hearts and minds of men. He suggests that Algerians tend to have ‘...more heart than mind’, and some of the same ideas from ‘The Minotaur’ are on display. The nation, he suggests, is more natural—a sense-of-past is a hindrance to natural living. Echoing his previous ideas in ‘The Wrong Side and the Right Side’ and his future position in ‘The Rebel’, Algeria is...
...for those who know what it is to be torn between yes and no, between noon and midnight, between revolt and love...
‘Helen’s Exile’ (1948) again takes issue with how post-war Europe is handling itself.
...the Europe we know, eager for the conquest of totality, is the daughter of excess.
Readers of ‘The Rebel’ will understand in particular the pejorative importance of the Camusian terms ‘totality’ and ‘excess’, as opposed to ‘unity’ and ‘moderation’. Justice also, as in ‘The Rebel’ is touched upon, and the idea of justice not being absolute, but knowing limits. To exile Helen is to not just remove beauty, but to remove anything of value worth fighting for in the first place.
...acknowledging our ignorance, refusing to be fanatics, recognizing the world’s limits and man’s, through the faces of those we love, in short, by means of beauty...
1950’s ‘The Enigma’ is a short essay by way of response to both Camus’ critics and lovers, and is such is very different to the others. He is uncomfortable with the position he has begun to occupy amongst those that take aim at him, and those who demand a variety of existential messianism. Camus is far less sure of the ideas he has explored and how they are being attributed to him.
A thousand voices are already telling him [the author] what he has found, and yet he knows he hasn’t found anything.
And how he is being so personally identified with his work is of grave concern. He rejects himself as being ‘a prophet of the absurd’, and it is the term ‘absurd’ he tries to shed from himself, like one would birdshit from Summer hat. He quite rightly points out how he mobilized the term originally, in his defence of this idea that Camus’ is some sort of Philosopher of Despair and Master Nihilist, something that sticks to him to this day.
...the absurd can be considered only as a point of departure—even though the memory and feeling of it still accompanies the farther advances. ... I have sought only reasons to transcend our darkest nihilism.
He mobilizes Aeschylus, considered generally the most serious and upright of the Attics that have come down to us, to talk about work that can be dark but ‘radiate light and warmth’.
At the center of his universe, we find not fleshless nonsense but an enigma, that is to say, a meaning which is difficult to decipher because it dazzles us.
1953’s ‘Return to Tipasa’ hails back directly to ‘Nuptials’, and the essay ‘Nuptials in Tipasa’ from 1936-8. We immediately learn there has been a previous returning to this returning, a disappointing one, with the discovery of guards and barbed wire around the ruins, perhaps echoing the wartime experience. But now, while the barbed wire remains, there is a new radiance, and Camus rediscovers some of the original natural Hellenic beauty, while realising that the beauty of his youth is gone. He is still left with...
...the thirst to love and the thirst to admire.
There is some daylight that justice has left unscathed, some sort of innocent beauty that goes beyond the categorization of beauty—despite him being one of its chief and most profound categorizers—and this is very important to him.
Thus there is a will to live without refusing anything life offers: the virtue I honour most in this world.
‘The Sea Close By’ (1953) is a heavily lyrical tribute to the sea and man’s relationship with it. The sea, as a fundamental element of nature, is ever present in Camus’ world.
This is how we ought to love, faithful and fleeting. I wed the sea.
He mentions plane travel as being a ‘metallic cell’ and ‘a barbarous coffin’ with ‘bloodshed’ on his mind, and one cannot imagine his future car ride in seven years time with a kind of chill. But here, where he sees the sun in the sea, two of his most powerful motifs across his oeuvre, he writes:
I recognized the world for what it was that day. I decided to accept the fact that its good might at the same time be evil and its transgressions beneficial.
‘The Rains of New York’ is included last of all, though I don’t believe it was part of ‘Summer’ originally. It is a lovely short piece on Camus’ impression of New York, a marvelous little series of observations on how he viewed American customs, and maybe, the modernization of the world.
He is certainly taken aback, but he admits he is also ‘out of his depth’. He is also obviously melancholic, but he realises that...
The second Lyrical Essay ‘Nuptials’ (Noces). FIVE POINTThis review is from Lyrical and Critical Essays which was placed here due to size constraints.
The second Lyrical Essay ‘Nuptials’ (Noces). FIVE POINT FIVE STARS
This text was taken from a 1950 edition of the original 1938 publication in a very small print run in Algiers. The introduction mentions that the text has been reproduced ‘...without any changes, in spite of the fact that their author has not ceased to consider them as essays, in the precise and limited meaning of the term.’
This interested me. Go to dictionary:
noun 1. /ˈɛseɪ/ (say 'esay) a short literary composition on a particular subject. 2. /ˈɛseɪ/ (say 'esay), /ɛˈseɪ/ (say e'say) an effort to perform or accomplish something; an attempt. 3. /ˈɛseɪ/ (say 'esay), /ɛˈseɪ/ (say e'say) a tentative effort. –verb (t) /ɛˈseɪ/ (say e'say) 4. to try; attempt. 5. to put to the test; make trial of. [Middle French essai, from Late Latin exagium a weighing. Compare: assay]
So it is an effort, an attempt, although there is little tentative about it, except perhaps in its acknowledgment of just how impossible its own project it. How much it assumes its own failure. It is also putting a range of things to the test, and a weighing, to come at it through its French/Latin etymology. I see what he means.
Just like Cardinal Carrafa being murdered by the hangman from Stendhal in the epigraph, we are going to be encouraged to look our Death in the eye ‘...without deigning to utter a word.’
The book is called Nuptials, and all four essays are recordings of nuptials, a kind of investigation of a unity between man and his existence: his body, his mind; truth, lies; nature, art; history, living, hope; life, death. All these themes intersect, one way or another, throughout the four separate essays, or weighings-up, if you’d prefer.
In the spring, Tipasa is inhabited by gods and the gods speak of the sun and the scent of abisenthe leaves, in the silver armour of the sea, in the raw blue sky, the flower-covered ruins, and the great bubbles of light among the heaps of stone.
This is the first line of ‘Nuptials at Tipasa’—the first and the most exultant of the essays—and it already contains a range of motifs that Camus will follow throughout the book, and some, throughout his entire literary life. The sun. Who can forget the sun. Meursualt would blame the sun for his murder. The sea. The sky. And the relationship between ruins and the stone of the earth.
It is spring. Camus (or, at least, the ‘I’) is with an unacknowledged woman exploring for a single day, first the ruins, then naked in the sea, then sex, then a cafe. He summons up an idyllic day. The perfect day. They walk ‘...toward an encounter with love and desire...’ and he leaves ‘...order and moderation to others.’ It is a step into a kind of Hellenic rite of excess, but it is one that does not do away with being human, but being within something greater. To be participatory and within without being, for a moment, without. It is ‘glory’:
...the right to love without limits.
To ‘...consumate with my [naked] flesh’ in the sea, in the sand, amongst the ruins...
In this marriage of ruins and springtime, the ruins have become stone again.
...and under the sun, which is ‘...truth, life, and death.’
So the ruins cease to have their meaning to humanity ... to this human. The stone that they once were before they were cut into serviceable and beautiful objects for humanity, then fell into ruins and became historic symbols of nostalgia, is now emptied back out of meaning, baked under the sun. This was a moment of pure living for Camus. Although he was conscious later of playing his part, like an actor—‘I had performed my task as a man...’—this awareness only comes about through the expression of the living, not the living itself.
It is beauty that demands that there is no beauty.
In ‘The Wind at Djemila’ we have another exploration of ruins, though in a very different mode.
I met a traveller from an antique land...
‘Ozymandias’, Percy Bysshe Shelley
It [Djemila] is a place from which travellers return.
This is not the classical beauty of Tipasa. This is a windswept barren ruin. It is protected ‘from vulgar admiration’ and ‘being picturesque’ and any ‘delusions of hope’ by its secluded location, its inaccessibility (Camus went there in a plane with a friend) and these winds, a wind he accused of polishing him, as if he himself was one of the wind-polished stones. But still also, the sun, giving ‘man the measure of his identity.’
There is a sense that the previous scene, in Tipasa was too beautiful now. Djemila has come along and said to us all YOU WILL DIE.
But ... if I had to speak of it [death], I would find the right word here between horror and silence to express the conscious certainty of a death without hope.
This is the enemy of life: hope; the kind of thing we project ourselves into which is always a lie. Djemila only lays it out more clearly, and allows you the courage to live.
I am going to die. But this means nothing...
A confrontation goes on when a man becomes aware of his death, and Camus has no illusions about the terror of it, nor the jealousy he will have of all those who live on, particularly the men and the women who will enjoy moments like he had at Tipasa. These will one day all be lost to him. He is an aware Ozymandias. He is the one that knows despair.
...well do I know its poetry: lucidity, indifference, the true signs of beauty or despair.
Yet he can live well, without hope, because he knows despair. He can now ‘...gaze upon my death with all the fullness of jealousy and horror.’ He can both refuse to die, without the renunciation of its necessity. We already see how ‘The Rebel’ will develop...
With ‘Summer in Algiers’ we move out of the ruins of men and their civilization, their social bindings, and into a city: Camus’ hometown, Algiers.
...Algiers and a few other privileged coastal towns open into the sky like a mouth or a wound. What one can fall in love with in Algiers is what everybody lives with: the sea, visible from every corner, a certain heaviness of the sunlight, the beauty of the people.
These people are almost like the stone of the previous two essay made flesh. ‘The land contains no lessons...’ for them, and their ‘...pleasures contain no remedies and their joys remain without hope.’ Are they being idealized? Perhaps. But Camus does not shrink away from the bitterness involved inthe bargain these Algerians have made with life. The live in the moment, they love in the moment, they are free; but they have also ‘...wagered on the flesh, knowing they will lose.’
The people have neither religion nor idols and die alone after having lived in a crowd.
There is a variety of innocence that Camus is developing here that has a position in the idea of the Absurd. When he observes the young men and women fondling each other on the open-roofed dance floor in the Algerian night, he observes that this is an innocence that is not separate from ‘these beings charged with violence from the sky in which their desires revolve.’ He does not shrink away from the injustices that this kind of intense living reveals also.
...one can find a certain moderation as well as a constant excess in the strained and violent faces of these people, in this summer sky emptied of tenderness...
I can see no point in the happiness of angels.
And we finish, again, with ‘hope’, which Camus suggests is the most evil of the things unleashed upon us by Pandora. It pushed us forward, it projects us, when we are people, now. It makes love impossible.
...the only truly virile love in this world: one that is generous and will die.
And then, the new ruins, the stones that are the markers of death. On the boulevard Bru is the cemetery, and Camus reads us out some epitaphs and it is here that he is at his most virulently dark, that this scratching mean anything to anyone. He ridicules them, and laments that this place must exist ‘...opposite one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.’ As opposed to just ‘the stones, flesh, stars and those truths the hand can touch.’
Everything that exalts life increases its absurdity.
Finally, we come to ‘The Desert’.
What counts is truth. And I call truth anything that continues.
Is Camus in a desert here? No. Unless it is at play with Barthes Desert of the Real. He is amongst the singular beauties of Italy where now he confronts what-man-makes-of-the-world most specifically, as in—art. Visual art fascinates him, in the sense of it being a kind of frozen present, and later he will express how sculpture is the greatest art, but just as it is magnificent, it is also trivial—a part of its magnificence? The poetry of ‘noble minds’ bothers him much more. It disguises truth. And, it is implied, like Italy, it:
...invites us to deepen an experience that paradoxically seems to be complete on first acquaintance.
In the night of Pisa, he feels he hears the voices of Jessica and Lorenzo, whom he favours over Romeo and Juliet, since ‘...nothing is more vain than to die for love.’ And we again collapse into a cemetery, and the epitaphs in the stone, and Camus rejects their acceptance and resignation, all symptoms of the living-in-hope and opposed to living. They all say to ‘You must’, and he cannot help but revolt against it, his first use of the term that I have seen, particular when there are women nearby with their ‘...breasts free beneath their tight dresses.’ He connects this to a purity, not a blasphemy. There are shades again of Tipasa. He talks of being naked again, stripped bare of everything, and this being a physical liberty:
...the loving understanding between the earth and a man delivered from being human.
Here we finally develop into a mode of living specific to the Absurd, to living with contradiction. Once again, Meursault can be prefigured, this time in his jail cell, before his execution.
A certain continuity in despair can give birth to joy. And when life reaches a certain temperature, our soul and our blood mingle and live at ease in contradiction, as indifferent to duty as to faith.
And we come to the idea of the desert, how a desert can be beautiful, a landscape devoid of any kind of life, like the soul, a soul deprived of hope is ‘...dried up, but the heart sees as magnificent.’ It is the idea of nature without man, of being annihilated. The human scale of such things can only be silence and dead stones. But, annihilation is impossible.
I was moving toward a wisdom where everything had already been overcome, except that tears came into my eyes and a great sob of poetry welling up within me made me forget the world’s truth.
And this is what will become the Absurd.
Even if I long for it, what have I in common with a truth that is not destined to decay? It is not on my scale.
He is defeated, the essay has to fail: something that is not on a scale cannot be weighed; and he calls upon Rimbaud, the poster child of the defeated artist. Is it possible to acknowledge something that is beyond understanding? To survey the desert ‘...in full anguish of thirst’?
I felt ... but what word can I use? What excess?
Lyrcial doesn’t touch the sides of the terrible beauty the Camus reaches toward and brushes his fingers over in this book.
In any case, I only like confessions nowadays, and the authors of confessions write chiefly in order not to confess, saying nothing of what they know.
In any case, I only like confessions nowadays, and the authors of confessions write chiefly in order not to confess, saying nothing of what they know. When they pretend to be owning up, that’s the moment to beware: they’re putting make-up on the corpse.
As far as his prose-fiction output goes, Camus is most well-known for three works: The StrangerThe Plague and this one, The Fall. The first two have definitive places amongst cycles of his work within his oeuvre and the development of his ideas: the Absurd and Revolt respectively. But the The Fall does not. It wasn’t even part of the planned third cycle—Love—that was never completed due to Camus’ accidental death. It was a short story that grew into a novella, and was published separately to the other short stories that were put together as Exile and the Kingdom.
Let me firstly say that, of the three theatrical versions of Camus’ work that I have witnessed, it is Drew Tingwell’s performance as Jean-Baptiste Clamence, in Michael Cronin’s adapted-for-the-stage version of this book, that has most occupied a Camus protagonist for me during my rereading of his work this year. I could visualize him delivering some of the key lines, like:
But let me introduce myself: Jean-Baptiste Clamence, at your service. Delighted to meet you. You must be in business? More or less? Excellent reply. Judicious too: we’re only more or less in anything.
Maybe because it is so suitable for a one-man-show? I mean, as a novel, it is a one man show… Anyway, he seems to occupy Clamence for me now in a way that the actors who played Meursault and Rieux do not.
This novella is a confession, and a confession about the nature of confessions and what they mean. How they work for us. Why they’re necessary. What makes someone guilty, what makes someone innocent, in a specific and a general sense. Clamence adopts the role of Judge-penitent, a role he does not explain completely until the very end of the story. We, the reader, the nameless companion in the bar and streets and houses of Amsterdam, occupy the role of hearing the confession of this fallen man. And he pokes us along at a pretty brisk rate, often teasing us with information that is still-to-come.
We follow his progression as a lawyer defending those who need to be, but always on ‘the right side’. He is beyond reproach, and he enjoys this position immensely… To be above, looking down. But an event occurs, mirroring, very gently, an event that occurred in Camus’ life, that causes a breakdown in the character of Clamence, a questioning of himself, a sense of guilt that was always there, that should always have been there, but he had resisted. And he feels the judgement of all around him. He regularly hears phantom laughter that comes from nowhere.
Later, talking about Jesus, he finds room to condemn Him as guilty, even before he’s born. No lamb, He…
And then he went away forever, leaving them to judge and condemn, with a pardon on their lips and a sentence in their hearts.
In some ways, as Robin Buss’s introduction touches on nicely, Camus is responding to the Paris intellectuals who froze him out over his inconsistent politics … inconsistent in the sense that Camus wasn’t ever happy to accept any manifesto as unquestionable blueprint for Life. This novella is his response, an appropriately literary response that assaults his ‘enemies’, while at the same time does not absolve himself.
And while this is an interesting historical and biographical point, Camus reaches much further. You can easily cast contemporary roles for the ‘bistro atheists’ he talks about.
They’re free, so they have to get by as best they can; and since, most of all, they don’t want any freedom, or sentences, they pray to have their knuckles rapped, they invent dreadful rules and they rush to build pyres to replace churches
Camus is an atheist, but, he cannot so easily jettison the depth of moral consideration and conviction of Christian theology … not when he mistrusts the purposes and ‘paydays’ of what is offered in replacement, and Clamence expresses some of that, but always with apology.
In short, you see, the main idea is not to be free any longer, but to repent and obey a greater knave than you are.
If Meursault is the Outsider, then Clamence is the Insider. The Outsider ascends to death on innocence, the Insider falls to life in guilt.
Aren’t we all the same, continually talking, addressing no-one, constantly raising the same questions, even though we know the answers before we start?
Clamence is the man for our times. He is our Janus, the kind we worship. He would be a celebrity now, not a lawyer, but an actor playing a lawyer on a major HBO big-budget series, the kind people talk about at water coolers and on Facebook pages. And the charitable works he would perform! You would see all on his Twitterfeed. Our age would have sustained him far longer than the 50s could…
Some mornings, I would conduct my trial to the very end and reach the conclusion that what I excelled in above all was contempt. The very people I most often helped were those I most despised.
I love Hughes' work, but found the bulk of these poems so obviously personal that I had difficulty finding an 'in', as opposed to the bulk of Hughes'I love Hughes' work, but found the bulk of these poems so obviously personal that I had difficulty finding an 'in', as opposed to the bulk of Hughes' other work. There are, of course, great exceptions to this, and the one poem 'The Dogs are Eating Your Mother' is worth the entire book. I have never been a Sylvia&Ted'ophile, and couldn't care less for all the chiefly political responses to their personal relationship. There are few poets anymore in the way that Ted was---poets that are willing to place themselves in the crossfire---so Ted's work is also powerful in this regard. ...more
An interesting love story played out between some well-rounded characters, who are deftly explored through subtle means, a[3.5 stars rounded up to 4]
An interesting love story played out between some well-rounded characters, who are deftly explored through subtle means, a combination of poetic sensibility and particularised narrative focus. Fitzgerald is one of those writers that manages to say a lot with little, and to push the reader into the gaps of his narration. On many occasions, what is NOT being said and what is NOT being done while what is actually being said and done is where the story sits. He reminded me a little of Kazuo Ishiguro in this way. He is a stylist of quite some substance.
I laugh when people complain that there aren’t enough likeable characters. Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping? You don’t have to like them. But you can love them. You just have to realise they’re as unlikable as yourself, if an artist was going to honestly portray you, have access to all those things you’d never tell anyone. And this is a story about honesty, as much as anything else, being true to yourself and being truthful.
As has been said elsewhere, Fitzgerald uses prefiguration to great effect in this story. Here’s an excellent example that helps us also decode an idea of ‘what’s it all about?’:
‘Suppose you meet somebody just as careless as yourself.’
‘I hope I never will, she answered. ‘I hate careless people. That’s why I like you.’
Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.
Right at the end, this exchange is reflected upon:
‘You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn’t I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride.’
‘I’m thirty,’ I said. ‘I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honour.’
Driving, that great American pastime, symbol of industry, symbol of freedom, speed, danger, requiring careful direction; and also, honesty, truth, pride and honour all mixed up together. We are dealing with people of privilege, those that have had to earn it, and those that haven’t, that are of the ‘entitlement’ class, a contemporary social term that can easily be applied to this milieu.
Is this a critique of the ‘American Dream’ or ‘Capitalism Gone Mad’? These things are very easy to critique, the ugly sides are easy to tap. And the story celebrates these things as much as critiques them. And people are having Gatsby parties when movie versions are released…
When tragedy strikes in this story, are these issues really at the heart of it? Fitzgerald is being more interesting. The people are not collapsing under the weight of these things, they are collapsing under the weight of their very personal relationships, and their own foibles. Fitzgerald is examining people and their relations. It is a love story…
…where love is a kind of pull between intoxication and sobriety. The love story of the love story is part of it too. Can a library really makes us sober, or is it just like dropping down another bottle of gin though our eyes, straight into the cerebellar cortex? The library is the thing telling us how to love, the do’s and don’t’s, the ‘what real love is…’ What does Daisy require to be loved? Where does that come from? There is highly charged intimate relationship going on between the reader and the writer. If you’re not careful, there could be a highly fatal accident…
In some ways, perhaps after reading Fitzgerald’s contemporary Henry Miller so recently, I found his style almost too stylist, almost as if the novel is a Gatsby party, with Fitzgerald a kind of smart, dapper, well-to-do but unobtrusive and distant host.
I enjoyed the poetic movement of it, and its touch and simplicity, but somehow felt it didn’t quite live up to its promise, which is perhaps part of the disillusionment it’s playing with.
They were gone, without a word, snapped out, made accidental, isolated, like ghosts, even from our pity.
This review is for the first novel of this omnibus edition only: Rabbit, Run
(Also, I discovered an interesting typo in the Pascal epigraph in this edThis review is for the first novel of this omnibus edition only: Rabbit, Run
(Also, I discovered an interesting typo in the Pascal epigraph in this edition. Mine has 'harness of heart' instead of 'hardness' which has a completely different spin to it.)
’Proverbs, proverbs, they’re so true,’ Jimmie sings, strumming his Mouseguitar, ‘proverbs tell us what to do; proverbs help us all to bee—better—Mouse-ke-teers.’
Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is not a good Mousketeer. Once he was, when he was adulated for his relatively strong high-school-level basketball skills. There was certainty in heroism. He was strong and tall and handsome and ... first rate. There was a role and rewards. It was easy to be in, and still be truthful. External circumstances were easy to live with.
But, it did not carry on into burgeoning adulthood. Rabbit become normal. He becomes second-rate. External circumstances are harder, and concessions must be made to stick with them.
’Right and wrong aren’t dropped from the sky. We. We make them. Against misery. Invariably, Harry, invariably ... misery follows their disobedience.’
He disobeys. And misery follows.
But people make concessions for him, every concession; and you’ll hear many a reader rattle on about his selfishness and his narcissism, and these things are true, up to a point; but, paradoxically, he remains a hero through his demand that life be truthful, and the rejection, in the end, of the constant, needful lies of ‘rightness’ as his coach would have it. He has said that ‘we’ make them, not Rabbit, not himself, but the big awful crushing ‘we’.
’What else do you like about me?’
’Cause you haven’t given up. In you’re stupid way you’re still fighting.
And that’s what Rabbit runs from. Not successfully. Not well. Not to some great reward for his efforts; but his misery is his, and there is a happiness in that.
What is the ‘right thing to do’ and what makes of us ‘a monster’ and how these things intersect is played with masterfully. When Rabbit does ‘the right thing’ at one point, the pivotal ‘bad thing’ could be said to happen as a result. Or not.
’Who cares? That’s the thing. Who cares what you feel?’
’I don’t know,’ he says again.
Updike has Ruth emphasise what not you. It’s not really even personal. It’s complete.
He abandons due to his abandonment. He lets go of that which refuses to cling. He runs because he knows he has to get away to remain real, while knowing that there’s no escape. There’s nothing else there, nowhere to run to, but maybe the act of running is enough. Maybe that’s it. He certainly doesn’t know. It’s an illusion too, the spur to run. In the end, it’s an illusion that trips him. But he knows it is. And yet, something internal happens. Something that maybe can trip Pascal.
This illusion trips him. His hands lift of their own accord and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of the sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: he runs. Runs.
Something also needs to be said about Updike and his brilliance in this novel, which is heartbreakingly fantastic. Americans in particular seem to despise him, when any other country would honour him to bits. I’m convinced that haters of his work are literary-cripples, either born that way or gender-politically-handicapped; and I’m beginning to think there is only a cure for the former of the two. There’s a sickness involved in it that is much wider than his oeuvre. But, maybe, ‘...the rigidity of hatred makes a kind of shelter for him.’ Or they’re just after the easy and effortless one-star-review hack not too many people will complain about. When you read his actual work, all these things sort of melt into like so many wicked witches of whichever direction you’re looking
He’s not James Joyce (so don’t blame him for his style) but he might be called an American-lite version. Or Joyce translated into American, from the Irish-in-English. His shifts through stream-of-consciousness are more vivid and less real at the same time, but maybe more real for it?
Wonderful, women, from such hungry to such amiable fat; he wants the heat his groin gave given back in gentle ebb, Best bedfriend, fucked woman. Bowl bellies.
The book is perhaps summed up best by one of its characters:
“…I’ll lay myself down on the operating table and I’ll expose my whole guts … every goddam
The book is perhaps summed up best by one of its characters:
“…I’ll lay myself down on the operating table and I’ll expose my whole guts … every goddamned thing. Has anyone ever done that before?—What the hell are you smiling at? Does it sound naïf?”
It exposes. It hadn’t been done before (well, not in the same way). It is comic. It is naïf.
With Henry Miller’s bizarre and incongruous existence in his time and place, there’s a kind of sense of loss, that something was lost after him, that an opportunity slipped us by. He represents a fork in the road, and it’s a fork that was never really taken. Instead, he can be easily reduced to a series of issue based identity-political dot points. Easily, that is, by those that…
…live among the hard facts of life, reality, as it is called. It is the reality of a swamp and they are the frogs who have nothing better to do than to croak. The more they croak the more real life becomes.
The same sort of people that can look at this book, even the first thirty pages or so, even if that’s all they read and threw the mouldy paperback down in disgust and reproach, and then croak on about ‘narcissism’, about ‘dead white men’, about ‘misogyny’ about all the stinking murky depths of the swamp that they’re paddling in.
So, all the croaking aside, what is Miller’s project? He takes Walt Whitman by the end of his beard and drags him along behind him through the streets of 1930s Paris and all the humanity around him, the world of men and women, and goes the full length, he starts with drums and ends with dynamite, he makes the world more endurable in his own sight, he throttles all the birds in creation, he tries to look earnest and looks pathetic, he finds himself again naked as a savage, he makes pages explode, he disregards existent principles, he contradicts and paralyzes, he makes lists of experience, he lives a life rendered down to cunts and stomachs.
This is not fifty shades of fucking grey. This is not a series of banal-titillations made to feel extreme and naughty while you keep warmly rolling in the swamp, wrapped up in a bunch of ideas that’ll keep you moist enough to pass inspection. There is no comfort here, unless it is the comfort of understanding that there is no comfort. Perhaps you have to be hungry and desperate to get to that point? You have to be that to make ‘the guinea pigs squeal’. To know where to put ‘the live wire of sex’, to know…
…that beneath the hard carapace of indifference there is concealed the ugly gash, the wound that never heals.
Is Miller above all this crap? Looking down like a Titan? If he’s part Titan, he’s also part goat. He’s below it. He’s burrowing underneath like he’s a haemorrhaging mole. You’re not meant to love him. Or like him. Or respect him. He asks for nothing from you. He doesn’t ask for you to review his book, since the book is a failure, it's not even a book, because it has to be a failure or else it fails completely; and since reviewing it is just further croaking in the every-spreading swamp of reality. Looking up a picture to slot into the coding so that someone might Like it and say, hey, yeah, nice review man, I liked that book too, lots of fucking, gave me a boner; or no, I disagree, this only got printed coz it gave guys boners and this book was a waste of my precious time when I could be reading the latest Miles Franklin shortlist from onetofive or something exceedingly more contemporary andslashor relevant, or that currently has a film version out with [insert some cunt] in it. I mean there’s only one review that counts and, bango, you start writing the book out word-for-word in all its glorious lack-of-glory and all its primal failure that then bleeds into that time when you were living at the Villa Borghese, and maybe it wasn’t lice, and maybe it wasn’t cunt, or books or dreams you were asking from life, but there was shit happening that you might not want to put down on a piece of paper, since it would certainly be inappropriate and revealing even if you shook it really hard and laughed and covered it in irony since there’s actually nothing appropriate going on down there, under the carapace, where all you might need is to have a rosebush thrust under your nose....more
The quality and mastery of Dostoevsky’s vision, and his use of character and plot and pacing, are all on display in this marvelous work. It’s true thaThe quality and mastery of Dostoevsky’s vision, and his use of character and plot and pacing, are all on display in this marvelous work. It’s true that perhaps it doesn’t hold together as strongly as some of his other works; but it’s not true that this is a poor example of his work. In some ways, it exceeds all of them, particularly through voice and narrative instability.
There perhaps is some reticence to include it amongst the ‘greats’ due to politics and religion, both then and now. Dostoevsky, the author, is something that always seems to outstrip the pigeon-holer: even Dostoevsky, the man...
A genuine review of this book would be at least another book, and I would prefer to be reading more and writing other things… While I love Dostoevsky independently (as did the Frenchman of whom I shall now speak), my motivation to read this book now was to prepare myself to read Camus’ ‘The Possessed’, the play he wrote based on the novel, as part of my 2013 centenary celebration of the Frenchman (yes, I know he was born in Algeria...). So I will start with some general points and then discuss the book in terms of how it relates to Camus and his thinking.
Dostoevsky, through the character of his narrator, Mr G—v, is exploring a world in change: there are ‘new ideas’ everywhere. This was a liminial phase in Europe and western Asia that both men were living in, the real and the fictional. Politics was on the move, class structures were under assault, what to believe in was being problemised. (It’s still going on now, but in different ways and, mostly, less overtly violently on a grand scale.) Man, woman; master, serf; science, religion; and more so, on a larger scale, how we go about believing in things and what effects these changes (or lack-of-changes) would have on people and social life itself and on being moral. Many opinions get expressed in this novel, many of which could easily slip into contemporary discourse without much of a hitch (just add some pop culture references…) Particularly:
‘Half-science is a despot such has never been known before. A despot that has its own priests and slaves, a despot before whom everyone prostates himself with love and superstitious dread, such as has been quite inconceivable until now, before whom science itself trembles and surrenders in a shameful way.’
And the terrible villain himself:
‘On the other hand, the docility of schoolboys and fools has reached the highest pitch; the schoolmasters are full of bile; everywhere we see vanity reaching inordinate proportions; enormous bestial appetites … Do you realize how many converts we will make by trite and ready-made ideas?’
Mr G—v, our very all-too-well-informed-of-events narrator, certainly leans toward a rather traditional line, and his summings up, particularly the ones that he demands are the most true, are often a little fishy in terms of their reliability. As with any narrator, any time he or she is not directly present in events, even if they discuss which character informed them etc etc, there is room for playful doubt for the reader, and I would urge any reader to take this into account, as I'm sure would the author.
That the villains of the piece get their come-uppance we are fore-told by the narrator early on, but not the depths and nature of the villainy: Dostoevsky makes use of prolepsis on numerous occasions to lead us along. There is quite a body count: it would have to be the most violent of his novels I know of, and he handles violence interestingly, both in a visceral sense and a psychological.
As for Camus and Absurdism: there are two exchanges I wish to mention specifically, and both involve the moral suicide-intendee, Kirilov. Now, Camus’ first major work of Philosophy, The Myth of Sisyphus, has a famous first line:
‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.’
Is life worth living: why/why not? Or, put earlier: To be or not to be?
Kirilov is planning to kill himself; why he is waiting, I shall not reveal for spoiler reasons, but he is fully and completely intending to do so. ‘Everyone who desires supreme freedom must dare to kill himself’ he tells our narrator in the first exchange I wish to talk about. When he’s discussing suicide as an option and they talk about pain, Kirilov brings up the example of a massive, huge stone, suspending in the air above your head, and makes the point that while you could be intellectually sure that releasing that stone on yourself would make death instantaneous and painless by such a large weight, you would still fear the pain that you know wouldn’t happen. And he likens this to the nature of God, or, if your prefer to be more contemporary, Grand Narrative Meaning of your choice (insert this wherever you see God too, if you like).
‘He doesn’t exist, but He is. There’s no pain in a stone, but there’s pain in the fear of a stone.’
God is there, like the stone, the maker of death and all things, he hangs over us (like Meursault’s sun on the beach in The Outsider too…). But He also isn’t there, not in any sensible way, in any sort of intellectual manner.
Much later, when speaking to Peter Verkhovensky, there is a further exchange relating to this problem:
‘God is necessary, and so must exist.’ [Kirilov] ‘Well, that’s all right then.’ [Peter V] ‘But I know he doesn’t exist and can’t exist.’ ‘That’s more likely.’ ‘But don’t you understand that a man with two such ideas cannot go on living?’
Camus’ chief contribution to literature and ideas can be summed up as his effort to save Kirilov; to answer his question. Living with this Kirilovic tension is what his Absurd Hero does: not denying one in favour of the other, but charting the contradiction of being human. I am very much looking forward to now reading how Camus uses his own ideas to play with these dramatic features in 'The Possessed'.
There are other echoes of this tension even in the relationship between the socialist plotters and the nature of the existence of the Central Committee. The 'group of five' often worry that it doesn't exist, that it's 'mythical'. And I haven’t even touched on the fascinating moral drama of Stavrogin, or the rises and falls of the elder Verkhovensky, or Shatov’s bizarre role and metamorphosis, or many other things…
And ensure that you obtain an edition that includes Stavrogin’s Confession, which was suppressed at the time (you'll see why...). It really fills out the character of Stavrogin psychologically. In it, I found such a beautiful line that could have been written just for me. You know those lovely moments... Stavrogin asks the priest, Tikhon, if he has a problem with his atheism.
‘On the contrary,’ Tikhon replied with unconcealed gaiety and good humour, ‘complete atheism is much more acceptable than worldy indifference.’
I could almost believe in God if every priest I met was written by Dostoevsky. I’m pretty sure Camus would agree.
Writing about your favourite and the most influential single book of your life—not that that means anything—is a little like staring into the sun, theWriting about your favourite and the most influential single book of your life—not that that means anything—is a little like staring into the sun, the same sun here in an Australian suburb as that of an Algerian beach: so I shall squint, if you don’t mind.
Firstly, Sandra Smith’s work is excellent. I have read all four English translations of L’Étranger that I am aware of (Stuart Gilbert, Joseph Laredo, and Matthew Ward being the other three. If you know of another, please let me know…) at least once over the years. Each has its own life, appropriately; which could be just as much to do with me as it does with the translation itself. I am learning French, starting this year, with the express intention of one day reading this book as the author wrote it. It’s a five year plan.
I have particular imaginings related to Camus’ writing this. He wrote it between 1939-40, but it was not published until the Spring of 1942 in occupied Paris.
This is a story about how someone lives. Meursault is an ordinary enough office clerk, with a strange kind of anti-social sincerity that the reader immediately encounters in the first two sentences, one of the most famous opening lines in literature. Meursault talks to us in a very candid manner, as if he’s talking to himself. As if, sometimes, he’s trying to re-assure himself. Is he a sociopath? No: he is aware of how people react to him, and he genuinely wants people to not be upset. But he also wants to engage with people clearly and openly. He is disinterested—in that kind of scientific manner—but not uncaring. His way of caring is to be honest. Most of all, it is to experience that he leans. He is a caring hedonist, a hedonist who wishes to experience pleasure, but doesn’t wish any more meaning be ascribed to it than the universe offers.
Which is none.
Marie: ‘A moment later, she asked me if I loved her. I told her that didn’t mean anything, but I didn’t think so.’
But he sees her pain, and responds as best he can. It surprises him when he answers genuinely and others are so surprised. He is capable of lying, and he does so several times, when someone is bothering him and he realises what they want to hear and so he gives them it so they will go away. But to people he cares for, he is himself.
When he looks at the world his descriptions of a plain Sunday afternoon are almost like a beautiful impressionist painting. ‘It was truly a Sunday.’ He likes smoking. He likes chocolate. He likes swimming and women. He tells the Judge in Part II: ‘One of the characteristics of my personality was that physical sensations often get in the way of my emotions.’
He shoots and kills a knife-wielding Arab on a beach. Later, in the courtroom, he says it was because of the sun. The ever present heat overhead, the inevitability of life, that-which-cannot-be-avoided-and-beats-down-on-us-all.
This was not before he stopped his friend from doing the same thing earlier. But:
‘The sky seemed to split apart from end to end to pour its fire down upon me. My whole body tensed as I gripped the gun. It set off the trigger.’
‘…and it was then, with that sharp, deafening sound, that it all began.’ Until he is on the way to the guillotine and ‘…it might be finished…’
That journey is Meursault’s journey towards an acceptance of the Absurd: to put simply, Camus’ notion that human beings live in an essentially meaningless universe where they are compelled—as part of that ‘living’—to search for (and often demand) some sort of essential meaning.
It is not until his last outburst at a chaplain purges him of evil, and empties him of hope, that he can finally, for the first time, open himself ‘…to the tender indifference of the world.’ This indifference—tender indifference—is an understanding of how to live in that gap, to be happy, to allow for happiness, within that Absurd gap. He is happy on the path to death, and he is willing the participation of others in it, even if they are hateful.
‘No, because I’m constantly in revolt. That’s what’s wrong.’
At either end of his writing life, we have two fractured novels. The First Man was a genui‘No, because I’m constantly in revolt. That’s what’s wrong.’
At either end of his writing life, we have two fractured novels. The First Man was a genuinely unfinished work-in-progress at his time of death, whereas this novel, his first novel-in-embryo, was reworked a number of times before Albert Camus abandoned it in favour of The Stranger. And there are certainly similarities. Roger Quilliot has suggested that ‘Meursault (protagonist of The Stranger) … is the younger brother of Mersault (protagonist of this novel).’ And he was working on this between 1936–38, concurrently with the play Caligula and Three Other Plays, and then moving away from it in 1939, toward his most famous work. And there are similar scenes and characters and tropes, mostly in Part One. Part Two differs in a number of ways, but thematically, parallels can be drawn with not-so-long bow strings. The Discussion between Mersualt and the Doctor, Bernard, towards the end reminded me of the later The Plague, for that matter…
Workshop of Camus' uncle in Algeria in 1920. Camus is in the front, center, in a black smock.
But all this aside (points perhaps mostly of interest to those who hold Camus in the high esteem that I do, and the edition I possess has some excellent notes prepared by Jean Sarocchi): how does it stand on its own?
Well, with five stars, it’s quite obvious that it stands very well. It stands and dances and plays a rugged game round of golf.
Structurally, I’m quite sure that Camus would have made some changes if he had not moved away from the novel (it was first published in 1972, about 30 years after it had been dropped by its author, 12 years after his death). There are also some tonal incongruities.
But it is still delicious, and often simply lyrical to the point of some kind of divine atheistic hymn to the lack-of-God:
At the strange peace that filled him as he watched the evening suddenly freshening upon the sea, the first star slowly hardening in the sky, he realized that after this great tumult and this fury, what was dark and wrong within him was gone now, yielding to the clear water, transparent now, of a soul restored to kindness, to resolution.
Mersault is estranged by his rebellion against his human mediocrity, and he wants to occupy his happiness completely and authentically. Love has been a central pursuit for happiness, as it is for many people, in fact it is all he has, this pursuit of women that he recognizes as both vain and predatory. He reflects on making love with his ‘mistress’ Marthe that:
…this initial astonishment at possessing a lovely body, at mastering it and humiliating it. Now he knew he was not made for such love, but for the innocent and terrible love of the dark god he would henceforth serve.
And that is himself, completely, without the reflection of himself in others.
So he chases exile, he chases a greater depth of relationship, he chases authentic friendship, he chases total solitude, and in the end, can only find it in death:
Of that great ravaging energy which had borne him on, of that fugitive and generating poetry of life, nothing was left now but the transparent truth which is the opposite of poetry.
It is a perhaps a little more floral in its style to the style he would develop and become known for (notes indicate he was playing with Proust…) but it's beautiful and fantastic and happily happily tragic. ...more
CALIGULA: Ah yes … Now listen! I’m not mad; in fact I’ve never felt so lucid. I suddenly felt a desire for the impossible. That’s‘Caligula’ 4.5 stars
CALIGULA: Ah yes … Now listen! I’m not mad; in fact I’ve never felt so lucid. I suddenly felt a desire for the impossible. That’s all. [Pauses.] Things as they are, in my opinion, are far from satisfactory. HELICON: Many people share your opinion.
Caligula, a just ruler, returns from mourning his sister’s death with a new vision. And a request: that he be brought the moon. If he is the ruler, and his rule is law, then this must be done, or none of it works.
CALIGULA: [with sudden violence]: All it proves is that I’m surrounded by lies and self-deception. But I’ve had enough of that; I wish men to live by the light of truth. And I’ve the power to make them do so.
Camus takes the nihilism of his times and applies it to a totalitarian State authority; writing during the ascendancy of Nazism in Western Europe. The dilemma being portrayed is central to the existentialist project: once man gives up on the idea of Grand Narrative meaning to life (socially imparted self-delusion), is the inevitable end-point, is the logic of bald-faced truth, the path to nihilism/hedonism?
Various characters in the play respond to Caligula’s ‘insanity’ in ways that can be considered representative of various segments of society, their approach for attempting to deal with this trauma of lack-of-meaning. Helicon, the bureaucrat, who hardly misses a beat; Scipio, the poet, who rejects it, but doesn’t know why, and eventually comes around to it, but doesn’t know why; Cherea, the scholar, who rejects it, and needs it destroyed; Carsonia, the lover, who lives with it and dies for it.
SCIPIO: Have you nothing of the kind in your life, no refuge, no mood that makes the tears well up, no consolation? CALIGULA: Yes, I have something of the kind. SCIPIO: What is it? CALIGULA [very quietly]: Scorn.
[A reading of 'Caligula' in the final scene at my place during our Centenary of Camus Evening that certainly broke into full dramatic performance. Here, Caligula reads script while manhandling his 'lover']
Caligula is certainly not ‘insane’ but, like Meursault in The Stranger, he could be considered socially insane, he has become untethered from ‘the other’ in the face of the impossibility of knowing it. He understands that he can’t live with this, that this is a broken method of living, just because it is living. He tells Carsonia that loving is the opposite of living, that it is the very antonym. It’s not an inconvenient truth that bothers Caligula, it is an impossible truth—the same as catching moons—but the impossibility of it, never acknowledged due to the sheer irresolvable tension of it in the face of social existence.
So of course, Caligula must die, he does everything he can to assist the plotters in killing him, letting them go when they’re captured. He knows he can’t live with the impossibility of his existence; but he wants to live. When he’s being killed, stabbed in the face by Scipio and Cherea and others, his final words, as he dies, are: ‘I’m still alive!’
In the last moment of his life, as in every moment, he is fully alive, and that is his victory.
‘Cross Purpose’ 4 stars
Camus uses a story of human tragedy taken from the news to illustrate the tragic absurd conditions of humanity. As a product of greed and avarice, an indifference to other people is developed to such a degree in the Mother and here daughter that they are capable of killing men in their sleep for their money; or is it the other way around? (There would be a way of reading these two characters as emblemic of first wave and second wave feminists respectively … but that might get Camus blacklisted, so I won’t pursue that…). Though both characters approach their denial and lack-of-certainty in different ways, they arrive at the same point.
This is a very personal and heimlich (to be Freudian) take on the Absurd: which touches heavily on notions of personal identity and familial relations, but still very much in touch with universal condition.
THE MOTHER [in the same listless tone]: It only proves that in a world where everything can be denied, there are forces undeniable; and on this earth where nothing is sure we have our certainties.
Both collapse under the weight of certainty, something that have resisted for so long, but cannot avoid.
THE MOTHER: But this world we live in doesn’t make sense, and I have a right to judge it, since I’ve tested all it has to offer, from creation to destruction.
Since the central plot device relies on mistaken identity—or at least, identity withheld—much could be discussed regarding how the play expores the Absurd epistemologically. Why does Jan withhold his identity? Why not say: ‘It’s I’? He goes through a few reasons, none of which sound that convincing—to the reader or his wife—like he’s fitting the pieces post-mortem. The mother asks herself the same question after they’ve killed him, but with a provision. ‘Oh why did he keep silence? Silence is fatal. But speaking is as dangerous; the little he said hurried it on.’ And the daughter, to the grieving wife, ends the argument later: ‘That in the normal order of things no one is ever recognised.’
No-one can really ever say ‘It’s I’ in any sort of meaningful way: all they can do is further their personal narrative with ‘the other’. Yes, it would have saved his life, but for how long? And for what purpose?
At the end, in the universe with the ever-present-but-ever-silent God, finally God answers the grieving widow imploring Him for help. The final word of the play is:
THE OLD MANSERVANT [in the same tone]: No.
‘The Just’ 5 stars
We now see the progression of the bleakness of Camus’ dalliance with nihilism into what will become The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt; summed up nicely with the chief of police talking to the condemned man:
SKOURATOV: You begin by wanting justice, and in the end set up a police force.
This was the play I expected the least from, and delivered the most. How is the killing of another man justified? Camus, again responding to reported events, whereby ‘terrorists’ refused to kill their target when he was accompanied by children, but carried out the bombing later successfully.
Stepan is your future Stalinist: ‘Everybody lies. The important thing is to lie well.’ ‘Honour is a luxury reserved for those that have carriages,’ is another of his gems. Opposed in motivation to Kaliayev, who loves life over justice, but is prepared to kill and die, or even ‘die twice’, in order that others may live. To be ‘just’ is to get beyond the immediate actions to the overall effects. The ‘warmth’ of the world is not for these people. They have to be cold for the projected warmth of the future.
Dora, the heroine, and most striking of the characters of this play, and the most striking of all Camus’ female characters I have read, says this, and names the play: “Do you remember what summer is like, Yanek? … but no! … it’s always winter here. We are not of this world … we are ‘the just’ … There is a warmth in the world, but it is not for us … [Turning away] Oh, pity ‘the just’!”
Sounds a little self-indulgent? She’s got reason to be, just at that moment, and it’s affecting. Of all Camus’ plays so far that I have read (I have seen none on a stage: only stage versions of his novels…) this is the first one where I have actually felt and thought to myself, wow, I would love to see someone great performing that on stage. The others I have enjoyed, but I have potentially enjoyed them more as a reader of a play, as opposed to be in touch with the performance of it. And it was Dora, right at the end, that hit me in the guts. Right after Yanek (Kaliayev) has gone to his death at the gallows, with a hangman jumping up and down on his shoulders to snap his neck, after being offered a reprieve if he’d turn informer:
DORA: Then do this for me: let me throw the bomb … [ANNENKOV looks at her.] Yes … the next time, I want to throw the bomb … I want to be the first to throw it! ANNENKOV: We don’t let women throw the bombs. DORA [with a shriek] Am I a woman … now? [They all look at her in silence.] VOINOV: Yes, let her.
This text is ironic and dark, but also beautiful. You understand the narrative inevitability of Kaliayev’s death, just as you do the Duke’s, and Kaliayev does to. He is Camus’ absurd hero, and he battles Stepov, the ungiving Stalinist; Dora, the lover; Skouratov, the Police chief; and finally, the religious Grand Duchess, the widow of them man he has killed, and while he doesn’t always win, he remains truthful.
GRAND DUCHESS: But men are vile… You can either forgive them or destroy them. What else can you do? KALIAYEV: You can … die with them. GRAND DUCHESS: But you die alone … He died alone.
Both Skouratov and the Grand Duchess want to save him, but he refuses. In announcing her imminent arrival in his cell, he says to him:
SKOURATOV: First the police … and now … religion! You are being spoilt, aren’t you? But everything holds together. Imagine God without prisons! … What solitude!
Camus is no apologist for terrorism—he opposed the Algerian nationalist terrorist movement when his ideological pals seemed to be all for it—but he is trying to occupy these characters, and he does so authentically and powerfully. The thorny nature of Justice, the dynamic scope of its lens and framing, and how that interacts with Love—of fellow man and of sexual partner—is stripped bare in a very cold light.
‘The Possessed’ 3.5 stars
It was possibly a mistake and an injustice upon the play to read the novel it was based on---The Devils---immediately before (My The Devils review). Camus says in his foreword that he is ‘…well aware of all that separates the play from that amazing novel!’ and that he ‘…merely tried to follow the books undercurrent and to proceed as it does from satiric comedy to drama and then to tragedy.’ I assumed that Camus was going to select particular elements and characters to dramatize this ‘undercurrent’ for the stage, and had even predicted how he was going to do that, with what scenes, and what characters he might use and/or conflate; but, instead of merely an undercurrent, a very large percentage of the novel in narrative terms is squeezed into a three part script with 27 characters. Consequently, in Parts One and Three, it seems like everyone is in a great rush to get things done, and I even couldn’t help imagining them talking to each other really really quickly.
But what Camus does do is reinvent Stavrogin in a very interesting way, particularly in Part Two where the pace seems to slow and the characters seem to get a bit of collective breathing space. He becomes the struggling-man-towards-being-the-Absurd-Hero: to Kirilov’s reasoned suicide in the face of intellect-over-faith, and Shutov’s abject living in the face of faith-over-intellect. And all three headed for annihilation in their own ways.
KIRILOV: Have you ever looked at the leaf of a tree? STAVROGIN: Yes. KIRILOV: Green and shiny, with all its veins visible in the sunlight? Isn’t it wonderful? Yes, a leaf justifies everything. Human beings, birth and death—everything one does is good
STAVROGIN: Don’t worry, I am a Christian. Or, rather, I would be if I believed in God. But… [He gets up.] …there is no hare. SHUTOV: No hare? STAVROGIN: Yes. To make jugged hare, you need a hare. To believe in God, you need a God.
Both Shutov and Kirilov were ‘disciples’ of Stavrogin: but Stavrogin, Shutov discovers, had been instructing them to completely opposite ends. While Shutov was being taught that ‘…the blind life-force driving a nation in search of its god is greater than reason and science…’, Kirilov was being taught the opposite.
SHUTOV: How could you tell him one thing and me the opposite? STAVROGIN: Probably I was trying, in both cases, to persuade myself.
So just as teacher created pupils, pupils created teacher.
Stavrogin’s fall is more spectacular in the play; he hits a nihilistic rock-bottom.
STAVROGIN: I hate everything that lives on earth, and myself first of all. So let destruction reign and crush them all, and with them all those who ape Stavrgoin, and Stavrogin himself…’
Stavrogin loses faith in all things, while his vile do-badder ‘pal’ Peter Verkhovensky…
PETER: Filth and decency are just words. Everything is just words.
…still has faith in himself, and puts himself and his own interests above all.
How Stavrogin meets his end is quite different in the play also; it comes as a direct result of one of his numerous love interests … the only one left alive at the end of the play.
STAVROGIIN: I am capable only of negation, of petty negation. If I could believe in something, I could perhaps kill myself. But I can’t believe. DASHA: [trembling]: Nicholas, such a void is faith or the promise of faith. STAVROGIN [looking at her after a moment of silence]: Hence, I have faith…
So he fails to accept his Absurd condition, and falls into faith, and dies, but dies happy. Camus’ Stavrogin is a fascinating fully-inked man-in-crisis who is crunchingly flawed and achingly sincere He reminded me sometimes of my impression of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. ‘Everything is foreign to me,’ he says. Doestoevsky’s Stavrogin is much more shadowy, particularly in relation to some ot the other vivid characters in the novel.
Camus’ calls Dostoevesky’s book a ‘prophetic book … not only because it prefigures our nihilism, but also because its protagonists are torn from the dead souls unable to love and suffering from that inability, wanting to believe and yet unable to do so—like those who people our society and our spiritual world today.’ And it remains so today. Camus’ play, for all its flaws, works very well in parts, but poorly in others, despite its content; Camus’ devotion to this ‘amazing novel’ maybe brings him undone. He wrote the play in 1953 or 54, but says in the foreword he had been visualizing it for twenty years, and it was touring in January 1959, after a six month run, when the company of actors were informed of Camus’ death in a car accident. ...more