‘Go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows.’
Rainer Maria Rilke puts forth the question ‘must I write?’ in these letter...more‘Go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows.’
Rainer Maria Rilke puts forth the question ‘must I write?’ in these letters from the great poet to the unknown Mr. Kappus. ‘Dig into yourself for a deep answer,’ he tells the young poet, ‘and if this answer rights out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity.’ Letters To A Young Poet, written between 1903-08, contains some of the most passionately moving words of encouragement and examination into the life of an artist. Rilke advises that ‘a work of art is good if it has risen out of necessity’, that they must feel they ‘would have to die if you were forbidden to write.’ From there, he instructs towards the soul-searching life of solitude which best cultivates the artists gift. With powerful prose that often reaches the same sublime peaks found in his poetry, these magnanimous, heart-felt letters are some the most empowering words of wisdom into undertaking of the arts as well as an impressive portrait of Rilke himself.
It is difficult to accurately explain the powers of transcendence contained in these letters. What is especially difficult is to do so in the realm of reviewing, a sort of critique that bastardizes the original message by having it be received tainted from my amateur perspective as it passes through me¹, as Rilke himself cautions against reading any sort of literary criticism, positive or negative in his very first letter.
’Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experience is unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.
While, as Rilke point out, the ethereal joys brought about in me while reading this are ineffable, I would still like to take a few moments of your time to discuss how beautiful these letters are. It is a sort of minor-key beauty, spending much time navigating through the implications of solitude and painful soul-searching, yet it elevates the heart to such high levels and is sure to make anyone reach for a pen in order to try their own hand at poetry.
‘We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us,’ Rilke writes. Constantly he tries to impress upon the young poet that the road to greatness is a difficult, lonely path, and that any meandering towards what is easy is destined to lead to failure or mediocrity. ‘It is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.’ In the Bukowski poem How to be a Good Writer, he examines the life of those he considers great and asks :
remember the old dogs who fought so well: Hemingway, Celine, Dostoevsky, Hamsun. If you think they didn't go crazy in tiny rooms just like you're doing now without women without food without hope then you're not ready.
This is merely a more blunt and coarse explanation of Rilke’s own sentiments. While it may seem a frightening truth, that we must always take the hard road, and that we must seek solitude in ourselves to mine the gold buried within us, that we may reach a point of near-madness, he presents it as such a beautiful gift, a place of inner turmoil that is bliss to the writer because it is how language is able to take root in our souls and grow.
’What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours – that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grownups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn’t understand a thing about what they were doing.’
Rilke advises that childhood is one of the richest places to seek ourselves and our inspirations. Not only to call forth our dusty memories and let language polish and remold them into something remarkable, but to use a childlike ‘not-understanding’ to best examine the world.
‘Why should you want to give up a child’s wise not-understanding in exchange for defensiveness and scorn, since not-understanding is, after all, a way of being alone, whereas defensiveness and scorn are a participation in precisely what, by these means, you want to separate yourself from.
What really stood out to me about Rilke was his utter humbleness. Rilke responds to Kappus as if Kappus were the most important person in the world, and he begins each letter with an honest apology for the delay in his responses. Rilke remains ever humble in his words, and though he offers brilliant, shining insights, suggestions and long investigations on a variety of topics beyond writing (God, love – especially his distaste for those who mistake lust for love and how it damages the artistic heart, Rome, paintings, etc.), he never asserts himself as anything but a man with no answers, only direction. He reminds Kappus ‘Don’t think the person who is trying to comfort you now lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes give you pleasure. His life has much trouble and sadness…’. We all face our anxieties day by day, and even those we look up and even idolize were never able to reach perfection. We are all human, and Rilke manages to both send us reaching for the heavens while still remaining firmly grounded here on the Earth.
This is a fantastic short collection for anyone with any interest in writing. It is one of the most beautifully empowering books I have ever read and reminds the reader of the mindset they must accept in order to let the arts flourish in the soil of their souls. Whatever the topic he discusses, it is wholly pleasant to be immersed in the flow of his writing - each word is a warm embrace. While the letters are intended for Mr. Kappus alone, and his side of the conversation is missing, the message is universal. From the man who wrote some of the finest poetry of the 20th century, this book should be read by everyone before they pick up a pen to write (the same goes for Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, but that is a discussion for another time). I’m surprised this isn’t required reading in all freshman college literature courses. This is truly a gift of writing, it sustained a smile across by face the entire time. 5/5
'Just the wish that you may find in yourself enough patients to endure and enough simplicity to have faith; that you may gain more and more confidence in what is difficult and in your solitude among other people. And as for the rest, let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always.'
Looking up from my book, from the close countable lines into the finished-full night outside: how in starry measure my packed feelings scatter, as though...moreLooking up from my book, from the close countable lines into the finished-full night outside: how in starry measure my packed feelings scatter, as though a bouquet of wildflowers were being untied…
One needs only to thumb through any book of Rilke’s poetry for a mere minute to find a line or stanza that will captivate their heart and mind. Considered by many to be the preeminent German language poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926) has left us with a dazzling collection of poetry and prose that can make anyone believe in the power and glory of language.
Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy of being No-one's sleep under so many lids. -Rilke’s epitaph
I decided to investigate Rilke after his Duino Elegies were so highly praised and alluded to in Pynchon’s Gravity's Rainbow, particularly the eerie 8th Elegy. Ludwig Wittgenstein was another to openly admire Rilke in his writings, and the novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress contained a wealth of facts about the poet. With so many references to him in such a short span of time, how could I not own the complete collection of his poetry? After spending the summer reading through the great Wittgenstein investigating the deficiencies of language, Rilke illuminates the potency and remarkable versatility of language.
Rilke explores the human heart and extracts our emotions into perfectly crafted imagery. Roses, angels and the heavens appear throughout the majority of his work, yet each time appearing fresh and fulfilling. A major selling point for this edition is that it includes a vast assortment of his body of work, including the full text of his most famous Duino Elegies and his Sonnets To Orpheus. I can’t speak any more highly of this poet, as nothing I can say will do him the justice his poetry will. I simply recommend this to anyone with even the slightest interest in poetry. Within the lines of his poems, you will find images and metaphor that will take your breath away.
-My life is not this steeply sloping hour, in which you see me hurrying. Much stands behind me; I stand before it like a tree; I am only one of my many mouths, and at that, the one that will be still the soonest.
I am the rest between two notes, which are somehow always in discord because Death’s note wants to climb over— but in the dark interval, reconciled, they stay there trembling. And the song goes on, beautiful.
Love Song How should I keep my soul from touching yours? How shall I lift it up beyond you to other things? Ah, I would gladly hide it in darkness with something lost in some silent foreign place that doesn’t tremble when your deeps stir. Yet whatever touches you and me blends us together the way a bow’s stroke draws one voice from two strings. Across what instrument are we stretched taut? And what player holds us in his hand? O sweet song.
Falling Stars Do you still remember: falling stars, How they leapt slantwise through the sky Like horses over suddenly held-out hurdles Of our wishes – did we have so many? - For stars, innumerable, leapt everywhere; Almost every gaze upward became Wedded to the swift hazard of their play, And our heart felt like a single thing Beneath that vast disintegration of their brilliance- And was whole, as if it would survive them!
-Again and agan, even though we know love’s landscape and the little churchyard with its lamenting names and the terrible reticent gorge in which the others end: again and again the two of us walk out together under the ancient trees, lay ourselves down again and again among the flowers, and look up into the sky.
Autumn Day Lord: it is time. The summer was immense. Lay your long shadows on the sundials, and on the meadows let the winds go free. Command the last fruits to be full; give them just two more southern days, urge them on to completion and chase the last sweetness into the heavy wine. Who has no house now, will never build one. Who is alone now, will long remain so, will stay awake, read, write long letters and will wander restlessly up and down the tree-lines streets, when the leaves are drifting.
The Lovers See how in their veins all becomes spirit: into each other they mature and grow. Like axles, their forms tremblingly orbit, round which it whirls, bewitching and aglow. Thirsters, and they receive drink, watchers, and see: they receive sight. Let them into one another sink so as to endure each other outright
Ignorant Before the Heavens of my Life Ignorant before the heavens of my life, I stand and gaze in wonder. Oh the vastness of the stars. Their rising and descent. How still. As if I didn't exist. Do I have any share in this? Have I somehow dispensed with their pure effect? Does my blood's ebb and flow change with their changes? Let me put aside every desire, every relationship except this one, so that my heart grows used to its farthest spaces. Better that it live fully aware, in the terror of its stars, than as if protected, soothed by what is near. (less)
‘…for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but in...more‘…for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge…’
To enter within the pages of Woolf’s 1927 masterpiece, To the Lighthouse, is to dive headlong into a maelstrom of vivid perspectives and flawless prose. Few authors are able to achieve the vast scope of human emotions and frustrations as of this novel, let alone accomplish such a task in the mere 209pgs Woolf offers. Flowing to the breezy soundtrack of waves breaking upon the shoreline, To the Lighthouse investigates the frailties of life and human relationships in breathtaking prose through the minds and hearts of Woolf’s characters as they struggle to affect a state of permanence within an ever-changing ephemeral existence.
Reading Woolf is like reading an extended prose poem. Each word shimmers from the page as every sentence illuminates the deep caverns of the heart. She accentuates her themes through carefully chosen imagery and metaphors, or constantly alluding to the passage of time themes through metaphors of fraying draperies and aging furniture and keeping the focus on the island setting through descriptions such as ‘bitter waves of despair’. The notion of each person as an island plays a major role in the novel. The waves continuously crash on shore much like the collision of characters as they interact and attempt to understand one another. These repetitions of ideas and symbols are used through this novel as a method of reinforcing them. Similarly, the characters often repeat their own beliefs, much like a mantra, to help reassure themselves of who they are.
Woolf effectively utilizes her own stream-of-consciousness style to tell her story, examining each characters unique perspectives and feelings of one another that culminate to form a tragically beautiful portrait of the human condition. Unlike the stream-of-consciousness technique employed by others such as James Joyce or William Faulkner, Woolf retains a consistence prose style, being more an observer of the inner-workings of each character instead of melding with their consciousness and writing in their own words. While this may seem a cop-out to some, it felt actually beneficial to the structure of this novel, such as allowing Woolf to seamlessly transition from character to character. This also was in keeping with the ‘person as an island’ theme since we could only observe through an authorial perspective and never truly know commune with the character, leaving the reader as just another wave crashing upon the shoreline of their consciousness. Late in the novel, Lily ponders over the power of narrating what one thinks a person is like as a method of understanding them: ‘this making up scenes about them, is what we call “knowing” people, “thinking” of them, “being fond” of them!’ There are several metafictional moments such as this within the novel that justify Woolf’s stylistic choices. Woolf’s decision to maintain a constant narration makes the book ‘about’ perspectives instead of ‘constructed out of’ perspectives.
Human interaction is the crux of this novel, and also one of its saddest messages. These characters interact daily and are under the constant scrutiny of one another, yet, try as they might, they can never truly understand each other. ‘She would never know him. He would never know her. Human relations were all like that, she thought, and the worst were between men and women’. They all try to leave their impressions upon one another but, at the end of the day, are still only left with their perspective and opinion of the others instead of the unity and knowledge of who their contemporaries truly are inside and what motivates their actions. They are forever separated by the fact that souls cannot ever meld and become one. The real tragedy is that these characters, while desiring to understand and be understood, more often than not hurt one another, often due to fear and insecurity, through their attempts of reaching into the others soul. Mr. Ramsey, while being exceptionally needy of praise and security, keeps his family at arms length through his neediness while resenting them and wishing they would leave him be: ‘he would have written better books if he had not married’.
These characters reach out to one another as if to a life raft, they need something to cling to and bind them with the present. Each character in their own way, be it Mr. Ramsey’s philosophy, Mr. Carmichael’s poetry, Lily’s paintings or Mrs. Ramsey’s guiding hand, attempt to leave their permanent scar on the face of eternity. Mrs. Ramsey in particular fears death and the unstoppable change that pushes us forward towards the grave. ‘A scene that was vanishing even as she looked…it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past’. She watches in horror as time slips by, firmly believing nothing good can come with the future and goes so far as to cover up Deaths bleak head in the form of a boars skull that hangs on her children’s walls. ‘With her mind she had already seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base fir the world to commit… No happiness lasted’. No matter what, time will pass us all by, like the lighthouse beam, illuminating us and calling us up from the dark for one brief moment, and then passing on again to leave us formless in the dark. If is fitting, given the fears of death and time passing, that death comes in this novel swiftly and suddenly. There is no telling when the beam of life will be gone, no preparations can be made, and we must deal with it. Such is existence. These fears can only be subsided, our lives given meaning, if we can reach each other, understand and love each other, thereby existing forever in memory and framed by love in the hearts of those we knew.
This novel takes much inspiration from Woolf’s own life (Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey being based on Virginia’s own parents, making this an elegy to her own mother as well as an elegy to Mrs. R) and doubly serves as a cutting commentary on the literary world in which Woolf was immersed. Woolf set out to oppose the obdurate male society that dominated the literary scene, Tansley’s words to Lily of ‘women can’t paint, women can’t write’ echoing a stereotype that Woolf would have had to combat her whole life. Woolf combats the patriarchy through this novel, creating a sleek, short masterpiece as opposed to the behemoth (but equally amazing) Ulysses, filled with attacks on the ‘masculine intelligence’ and making parody of the male opinions on women. Often the reader is given the opinion though a male perspective that ‘women made civilization impossible with all their “charm”, all their “silliness”…’, yet these same men crave the attention and affection of Mrs. Ramsey – they fly into an anxious fit without the reassurance of the women. They spend their time thinking lofty thoughts, but it is the women that keep order. Mrs. Ramsey despises such masculine activities as hunting and is the head of the household and the keeper of peace, yet she still reads as a bit of a cautionary tale. She still succumbs to the gender roles expected of her, such as being submissive to Mr. Ramsey and playing matchmaker – although this serves more as her attempt to maintain control over life than actually falling into stereotypes. Lily is therefor given as the ideal, the one who can press on despite naysayers like Tansley, be a self-sustaining, ambitious woman that keeps an understanding and open heart and painting those around her into eternity through her perseverance.
This was without a doubt one of the finest novels I have ever read. Woolf offers pages after page of incredible poetry, never letting up for an instant. It takes a bit to get your footing, as she drops the reader right into the scene without any exposition, but once you have found your bearings your heart will swell with each flawless word. The middle section of the novel, the brief 20pgs of ‘Time Passes’, may be one of the most enduring and extraordinary displays of writing I have ever seen. This novel will force the reader to face the bleak truths of change and death along with the characters, yet offer a glimmer of hope through unity and love that is sure to strike a chord in even the coldest of hearts, all the while being a stunning anthem of feminism. This is a novel to read, and read again and again as you witness your own present and future fade into the past.
‘Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures’
This novel came highly recommended to me through two trusted friends, whose reviews I would like to share with you here and here. But don’t just take our word for it, because this is one that should not be missed! (less)
When looking to purchase a book I always try to buy them used. This allows me to stock my personal library w...more‘The world is everything that is the case’
When looking to purchase a book I always try to buy them used. This allows me to stock my personal library with nice hardcover editions that often cost just as much, or occasionally less, than the price of a new paperback edition while also supporting small businesses that do their part to keep the dream of physical books alive. Used copies of books also come with an elusive presence of the previous owner haunting the pages. Occasionally I will wonder how the book came to be resold, especially when there is a small inscription on the inside cover such as my hardback edition of Zbigniew Herbert’s The Collected Poems: Dad, Happy 83rd Birthday - 2007. On one hand, the recipient may have disliked the book, or already had a copy, or there is the chance that this owner may no longer be with us. In instances such as this, the small asterisks that precede a handful of titles in the Table of Contents suddenly become an increasing point of interest as I thumb through to these poems and wonder what they meant to the former owner. Is there a message within the lines that provided comfort to someone in their twilight years, be it a laugh or an encouraging sentiment?
Another side effect of purchasing used editions is chance that the former owner was, like myself, the type to underline and take various notes. This has been beneficial at times, such as a dirty softcover of Dylan Thomas’ Selected Poems I purchased from the Dawn Treader in Ann Arbor, MI (my personal favorite bookstore) when I was 19 and just beginning to immerse myself in the world of poetry. Despite seeing a slew of margin notes, my shallow pockets persuaded me to buy it anyways after seeing a $4 price sticker. Later at home while diving into Mr. Thomas’ work, I discovered the notes were incredibly insightful and detailed and further investigation led me to realize that it had once been used by a UofM professor for use in lecture. Without such accessible lecture notes, I may not have ever cracked the Thomas code and may never have become such an avid reader of poetry. However, margin notes can occasionally be distracting – I have a copy of Mice and Men where every single metaphor or simile is denoted in thick black ink, but I cannot complain too much as I also mark up all my books. In his poem ’Marginalia’, Billy Collinsdescribes this act of note taking as showing that ‘we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; we pressed a thought into the wayside, planted an impression along the verge’; I find taking notes a unique method of further interacting with the author and leaving a tattoo of consciousness to commemorate my times spent between the covers of each book. It is an old habit born from many hours spent in classrooms discussing literature that I have nurtured to keep from getting lazy with my readings (plus certain authors come in handy to flip through while writing college essays to browse the many defined terms that may come in handy).
When I received Wittgenstein’s Mistress in the mail, I opened to the first page to discover an onslaught of margin notes and underlines. Many of them didn’t seem particularly helpful, and appeared as the previous reader attempting to get their bearings with Markson’s innovative style. Encouraged by their notes, I dove in as well, comforted by the echoes and footprints of a former traveler. Even Kate (it would seem that critics and scholars alike have accepted this as the signifier of our narrator despite it only appearing once in a novel where facts have a revolving list of names attached to them. Kate refers to herself by a different name later on as well.) left messages in hopes of reaching a fellow soul such as ‘someone is living in the Louvre’ Even underlining seems to be encouraged by Markson, as Kate will cite favorite quotes of hers that she underlined in non-required books during her college days. My safety net was not to last though. 11 pages in, the notes stopped and I was flung into the maelstrom of bouncing ideas and fragmented consciousness, left to find my bearings in the dark without a fellow hand to hold as I descended deeper and deeper. Having made it through to the other side, there could be no more fitting way to approach this novel.
Now that the overlong introduction is through, it is time to encourage you to read this wonderful novel. Despite being rejected fifty-four times (Moore), this novel was picked up by Dalkey Archive Press (who have done great things to keep the dream of literature alive) and has lived to literary glory. David Foster Wallace called it ‘a work of genius’ and wrote an extensive essay, The Empty Plenum, dissecting and praising Markson’s masterpiece. It is not an easy novel, which can most likely be ascertained considering such praise by DFW, but it is a novel that unfolds into powerful messages of loneliness, language, art, and the human condition.
As the title would suggest, Markson alludes heavily to Ludwig Wittgenstein and particularly to his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a major work of modern philosophy, and of which the single sentence paragraphs found in WM seems to mimic. The first line of Tractatus, ‘the world is everything that is the case,’ is referenced often by Kate, and the nature of this novel further investigates what Wittgenstein meant by such a statement. In Tractatus, Wittgenstein furthers with: ‘1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not things. 1.2 The world is divided into facts Kate illuminates her life to the reader through a churning smattering of facts of art, music, literature, and events of her life. It is through the jigsaw pieces of various facts falling into place that we are able to view the world through her eyes. She, however, views ‘Things’, as not important beyond the facts they deliver. Books she loves and cites often are burned up page by page – or ripped apart to watch them soar on the wind ‘like seagulls’; favorite painting are burned or painted over; clothing, watches, electronic devices and any other ‘baggage’ she carries is all left behind. Wittgenstein writes that: 2. What is the case--a fact--is the existence of states of affairs. 2.021 Objects make up the substance of the world,’ and ‘2.0271 Objects are what is unalterable and substantial; their configuration is what is changing and unstable.’, thus showing Kate’s burning of books and houses a method of transforming them from being simple things, into objects, an idea, which make up the substance of the world, This ‘substance of the word’ is a fact, which is the world. Through destruction, Kate is creating a world of facts. It is fitting then, that Kate is an artist, a person who creates, and Markson does an excellent job of showing creation and destruction as two parts of a whole.
Much of Kate’s writings double back in an attempt to portray the most precise and accurate use of language possible in expressing herself. This often becomes comical, redundant, and often obscures her original intentions by sidetracking into a different branch of thought. She pays such close attention to phrases: The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frighten me. For instance I thought about them like that, also. In a manner of speaking, I thought about them like that. The more she attempts to affect concise language, urging the reader to believe her more and more by employing phrases such as ‘on my honor,’the more she exposes the latent fallacies and impreciseness of language. Occasionally, when she double backs to exemplify the multiple interpretations that exist for these arrangements of words. Word, Wittgenstein argues in works such as The Blue and Brown Books, are merely ‘dead and trivial’ signs and symbols that only ‘get their significance from the system of signs, from the language to which it belongs’. Essentially, words are meaningless signs and we only apply meaning to them through our arrangement of signs to create a set reaccepted connotations, denotations, and, well, meaning. By calling to mind the possible variations of interpretation for each phrase, she is ‘checking’ our preconceived notions and making us more aware of the analogous nature of words. Many times, the sentence in question was accepted by the reader and wouldn’t have seemed cumbersome without her direction, or, as Kate says ‘even if for some curious reason one’s meaning would generally appear to be understood, in such cases.’ While she often questions if she is ‘mad’, observing her acute sense of language makes the reader wonder if this awareness comes from madness (as it would initially seem), or a higher sense of consciousness and understanding. It should be mentioned as well that such attention to the multiple interpretation of words can be applied to the enigmatic conclusions of the novel itself. Markson leaves room for many interpretations while simultaneously, as DFW posits, cries out to be interpreted while also directing the reader towards the tools for interpretation.
Validity is crucial to Kate. She stresses the importance of believing her fractured mind, yet bombards the reader with facts that are constantly morphing. A reader should be wary of prematurely spouting out exciting factoids, as pages later they may find the factoid was attributed to the wrong artist. Late in the book, Kate questions why writers such as Homer would blatantly lie or stretch the truth on matters such as the number of ships involved in the battle of Troy.
’Quite possibly Homer knew perfectly well himself about the real number of ships, but decided that in a poem one thousand, one hundred and eighty-six would be a more interesting number as well. Well, as it undeniably is, as is verified by the very fact that I remember it.’
It is curious how ‘lies’ and impreciseness can be more effective that the truth, and that falsities of language may not be intended to deceive but actually have an honorable impetus of furthering a deeper literary meaning. ‘Certain writers are sometimes smarter than one thinks’. Therefor, Kate’s revolving names and facts may be more than the slip-ups of a damaged mind. Various facts get paired, or mis-paired, in a method that furthers the understanding of one fact by using the other as a ruler of sorts, some system of measurement or reference such as the back of Kate’s hands are a reference to her age. When facing the harsh reality of her past, Kate refers to herself by a different name, Helen. Kate has spent much energy examining the impossibilities of the Trojan war being just over ‘one Spartan girl’, and applying the name to herself may be her method of accepting full responsibility while also expressing that it is foolish to actually believe all the blame could rest on her shoulders.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress boils down to a gorgeous climax that should not be missed. This novel, which almost never saw publication, is a true gem of literature. Through her exploration of language, validity, and madness, Kate leaves the reader questioning their own perceptions. Free yourself from the safety harness of the world and take the plunge into the eye of the hurricane that is Wittgenstein’s Mistress. 5/5
For 100 years now, Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, has engaged and encha...more'reality will take shape in the memory alone...’
For 100 years now, Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, has engaged and enchanted readers. Within moments of turning back the cover and dropping your eyes into the trenches of text, the reader is sent to soaring heights of rapture while clinging to Proust prose, leaving no room for doubt that this is well-deserving of it’s honor among the timeless classics. In swirling passages of poetic ecstasy, the whole of his life and memories dance upon the page, carefully dissecting the personages that surrounded his childhood and illustrating a vibrant account of the society and social manners. Swann’s Way is a powerful love story capturing the romance between Proust and his existence as he wields sprawling lyricism like tender touch and kisses in order to sensually undress the world, revealing all the poetic beauty that hides within the garments of reality.
Open the novel to any page and you are likely to find a long, flowing sentence full of love and longing for the depths of existence. Proust is a virtuoso. His famously complex sentences rise and fall in dramatic fashion, carefully pulling incredible aerobatics of emotion across the page like a violinist does with sound in only the most elite of classical compositions. If it isn’t obvious, I quickly became utterly smitten with Proust. Even Virginia Woolf read Proust in awe. Some of the finest passages that have ever graced my eyes are found in this volume. Take for example this exquisite passage on the power of music:
’Even when he was not thinking of the little phrase, it existed, latent, in his mind, in the same way as certain other conceptions without material equivalent, such as our notions of light, of sound, of perspective, of bodily desire, the rich possessions wherewith our inner temple is diversified and adorned. Perhaps we shall lose them, perhaps they will be obliterated, if we return to nothing in the dust. But so long as we are alive, we can no more bring ourselves to a state in which we shall not have known them than we can with regard to any material object, than we can, for example, doubt the luminosity of a lamp that has just been lighted, in view of the changed aspect of everything in the room, from which has vanished even the memory of the darkness. In that way Vinteuil's phrase, like some theme, say, inTristan, which represents to us also a certain acquisition of sentiment, has espoused our mortal state, had endued a vesture of humanity that was affecting enough. Its destiny was linked, for the future, with that of the human soul, of which it was one of the special, the most distinctive ornaments. Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is without existence; but, if so, we feel that it must be that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream, are nothing either. We shall perish, but we have for our hostages these divine captives who shall follow and share our fate. And death in their company is something less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less certain.’
Beautiful. Throughout Swann’s Way we see this sentiment expressed to cover all of reality in a blanket of art; by reshaping what we perceive into beautiful notions of prose, music, sculpture, architecture, or any other form of aesthetics, Proust seeks to discover the true shape of meaning and cling to an ideal, an ideal that will linger like a sweet perfume long after the actual object of desire and reflection has either faded or reared it’s ugly head and begun to rot.
By exploring memory, Proust is able to wrap all his sensory perceptions, all the external stimuli experienced over a lifetime, into a charming bouquet of words in order grant them a linguistic weight in which they can be shared and enjoyed by others. He despairs when contemplating that his experiences were not shared by other people and didn’t have ‘any reality outside of me. They now seemed to me no more than the purely subjective, impotent, illusory creations of my temperament. They no longer had any attachment to nature, to reality, which from then on lost all its charm and significance…’. He finds solace in literature and his greatest hopes are to become a writer because it grants the power to capture the true essence of anything. By contemplating an object he finds it is ‘so ready to open, to yield me the thing for which they themselves were merely a cover’, and language is the snare to capture and immortalize these fleeting impressions and moments of glowing epiphany. For it is the impressions, the inner beauty, that matter to him instead of the objects themselves. He falls in love with Mlle. Swann because she connotes ‘the cathedrals, the charm of the hills of Île-de-France, the plains of Normandy’, as well as her association with his beloved Bergote – he loves the idea of her more than the physical being.
The centerpiece of the novel, Swann in Love, is an emotionally jarring ride from sublime romance and intimacy to the obsessive, nerve wracking depression of love being ripped to pieces in its fiery tailspin downward. This story, practically a novella that could work well as a stand-alone piece, gripped me the strongest. Perhaps it was the bruised memories of similar circumstances, but my heart went out to Swann despite all his flaws, self pity and shameful actions. Proust creates near-Greek tragedy in him by creating a man of legendary proportions and casting him down upon the rocks. Story aside, Swann too seeks the ideal, even to the point of self-destructive monomania. A man of the arts, Swann associates his image of ideal with aesthetics, but unlike the narrator, brings it to life through sculpture, paintings and music. Odette becomes most beautiful to him when he can appraise her like a sculpture:
’[E]ven though he probably valued the Florentine masterpiece only because he fount it again in her, nevertheless that resemblance conferred a certain beauty on her too, made her more precious…and he felt happy that his pleasure in seeing Odette could be be justified by his own aesthetic culture.’
Lovemaking for the couple becomes more personal, more artistic in his eyes through their personal euphemism ‘make cattleya’ as it brings all further acts of intimacy performed under such a title an extension to the first, passionate and idealized union of their bodies. The act ‘lived on in their language’ and offered Swann a sense of possession over the act by creating with the phrase an ‘entirely individual and new’ action. The ‘little phrase’ played by the pianist during their first encounter at the Verdurin’s becomes the anthem of their love, and it’s melody carries the image of his ideal Odette, the Odette that swooned over his every word and loved him deeply, the Odette that he will always hold to his heart and pursue even when the Odette he can physically hold comes up as a pale shell of the ideal (I've been reading to much Derrida lately to not comment that we can never achieve the ideal, which makes his downfall inevitable. The lack of sound logic in his thinking is apparent all through his romantic decline too). Sometimes when you have lost everything, you fight for that ideal that has already dissipated in order to uphold some sort of self-dignity, even though it is just that dignity which will be lost in the process. Proust delivers love and tragedy at it’s finest.
Through each marvelous passage, Proust gives a fleshed out portrayal of the people and places n his life. His family and friends are given a second life through his words, which paint such a lifelike portrayal, examining their greatest traits, their habits and not shying away from unveiling even their flaws, that they practically breath on the page. Proust has an acute eye for social manners, and the reader can pick up on even the most subtle of vanities, ill-manners, or kind-heartedness of all those encountered. Of particular interest is Proust’s brutal portrayal of the Verdurins and their group of the ‘faithful’, refraining from casting judgment while letting their actions speak for themselves to betray their ignorance of the ideas they speak so highly of. The Verdurin scenes bring back memories of college parties where less-than-sober members speak so highly of art yet have little of value to discuss when pressed, the same people who label everyone around them and sneer at those without their same ‘high standards’ of art (which, okay, sometimes that person is me). Proust immortalizes these fakes forever in his words, making me think he was getting the last laugh at a group that once condescended him.
I urge anyone with even the slightest interest in the novel to find it and read it immediately. The language simply blossoms, even after being run through the presses of translation. First loves, heartbreaks, losses of many kinds, and the exciting phase of childhood when our understanding of the world around us begins to reveal itself, all come to life in a book that will make your emotions dance and sway. 100 years after it was written, Proust still holds weight in the world today and remains high and above many of the authors who have followed him. I cannot stress how incredible his prose is, I have found a new author to hold close to my heart and savor each blessed word. Take the Swann’s Way. 5/5
‘I looked at her, at first with the sort of gaze that is not merely the messenger of the eyes, but a window at which all the senses lean out, anxious and petrified, a gaze that would like to touch the body it is looking at, capture it, take it away and the soul along with it…’
‘It is unbearable that people we know should suddenly be relegated to the past.’
Death is inevitable. From the very first page of Javier Marías’ flawle...more‘It is unbearable that people we know should suddenly be relegated to the past.’
Death is inevitable. From the very first page of Javier Marías’ flawlessly executed novel ‘Tomorrow In the Battle Think On Me’, death becomes a constant companion to the reader, always whispering in our ear the truths of our impermanence and the endless variety of possible deaths that await us – horrible deaths, ridiculous deaths, death that may make a stranger laugh when they read it in the paper. ‘Any dead life lasts longer than an inconstant lived life’ and our time spent beneath the sky leaves such a tiny trace once we are transferred to our time beneath the soil. However, every single moment of our living actions are intertwined with those around us and bear down in their memory. Through a narrator whose tightly knit, yet meandering ruminations serve as an exquisite investigation into the implications of storytelling and language, Marías examines the permanent marks the departed leave on our consciences, the voids their absence forms in our lives, and our endless interconnectivity as we are flung forward towards oblivion.
‘How little remains of each individual in time, useless as slippery snow, how little trace remains of anything…’ This chilling sentiment is often pondered by the narrator throughout this incredible novel. After a potential fling with a married woman is suddenly extinguished by her sudden death, our narrator must bear the burden of her memory, her name, and that of her young child whom he sets out a plate of food for before slipping away into the night, is forever etched into his conscience. ‘What a disgrace it is for me to remember your name, though I may not know your face tomorrow’ The lives of those lost slowly slip into ‘the reverse side of time, it’s dark back’, their features slowly fade in our memory; their belongings become redundant and useless - their personal charm washed away with the fleeting spirit; and slowly they dissolve from the world as we look to those alive and think on the dead less and less as time assuages the pain of their loss. While Marías often leaves the reader flailing in a vacuum, facing their inevitable oblivion, there is a sense of hope. There is hope in the fleeting ways we leave our living on the lives of those we encounter, cradled in their memories to cling to the world through them.
In this way, Marías presents a Madrid characterized by its ghosts. The living slip through the streets with carrying the ghosts of others in their minds and hearts, streets are named for famous fallen heroes, parks named for bombing mishaps during the war – the whole city is entrenched in its history. However, it is not only the dead who are faced with their dissolution, and all throughout the novel we are presented with characters slowing dissolving into oblivion despite the beating of their hearts. The narrator is a political ghostwriter who writes for another ghostwriter – a mere ghost of a ghost, a political leader that enlists his aid fears being forgotten and not leaving a mark on the memory of his people, and characters shroud themselves in mystery and shadows to avoid connection to a death. While it is unbearable to know another has died, it is equally unbearable to dissolving while still alive. Memory is the only way they can cling to the world as well, such as a sullen speech by the political figure, Solitaire aka Only the Lonely aka Only You etc., where he expresses fears that ‘the more reviled the person, the more memorable they are’. Those who hold secrets inside feel so burdened by them that they must eventually bring them out into the light, not because of a growing shame eating away at the soul, but because ‘they have merely been overcome or motivated by weariness and a desire to be whole.’ It is the bonds we form with others that builds a sense of permanence, by sharing memories or sharing our stories, we pass them on so that we can forge a space in the hearts of others that will continue after our own departure. Sometimes our ghosts can be a heavy burden, such as the film seen by the narrator (a film of Richard III) in which an old King is visited by the ghosts of those who lost their lives in his name, mocking him, cursing him: ‘tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword. Despair and die.’ The world is but a history of ghosts seeking remembrance in the hearts of the living, sometimes out of love, sometimes out of malice. Yet how much of another can be imposed upon us, since much is ‘of no interest to the person receiving it, who is busy forging his or her own memories.’ The real irony, however, is that even our sense of permanence, the fragments that do find their way into the minds of others, is just another form of fleeting impermanence. Those who hold us in our hearts will eventually rot away as well, taking our ghost to the grave with them.
’[E]verything is continually travelling on, everything is connected, some things drag other things along with them, all oblivious to each other, everything is travelling slowly towards its own dissolution the moment it occurs and even while it is occurring…’
The way our lives are connected is illuminated brilliantly through Marías. The way others are etched into our hearts like names on a tombstone only cracks the surface. Marías uses language in a unique and compelling way to tie everything together. Using repetition to revisit many of the narrator’s luscious meditations when they apply to a new situation, it is as if he doubles back to stich a new fold together in the narrative, carefully sewing all the events and ideas together to form one large potent message on life and death. i>When we go back to a very familiar place, the intervening time becomes compressed or is even erased and cancelled out for a moment as if we had never left, it is that unchanging space that allows us to travel in time.’ The way Marías juggles his themes and pulls all the vast array of ideas together in the closing scene makes for one of the most impressive conclusions to any novel I have ever read. It is nothing short of genius. Through this connection of ideas, Marías reminds us that this is a story being told to us, a story from one perspective turning the reality around him into a cast of characters to move about a narrative to express the way he perceived it, which opens up an incredible examination on language.
Not only is all of humanity connected, but words as well. Each word drags with it an assortment of connotations, which he examines in detail, each change from the usted to the tu and vice versa is dissected to extract a wealth of hidden meaning, and every word ‘is at once one thing and its contrary’ (an idea that Derrida would be pleased to see put to good use). It is our language that allows us to interact with one another beyond the purely physical, and while both leave us forever altered by any interaction with another, it is only through language that we are able to examine and express the ineffable impact of our collisions with the bodies and consciousness of others.
‘What a strange contact that intimate contact is, what strong, non-existent links it instantly forges, even though, afterwards, they fade and unravel and are forgotten…but not immediately after establishing those links for the first time, then they feel as if they were burned into you, when everything is fresh and your eyes still wear the face of the other person’
The physical contact bonds us to others, and not only to those we immediately make contact with, but all those with whom we are now linked to by the process of our minds acknowledging that the other has contact with people beyond us and now we are linked to them through this chain of interaction. The narrator often tries to recall an old Anglo-Saxon term that failed to be adopted into the languages that stemmed from it, a term describing the bond between those who have shared a bed with the same person. The narrator feels an unbearable burden to acknowledge all the men he may ‘be related to Anglo-Saxon-style’, and posits that the word has not survived because ‘it isn’t easy to accept the act that it describes and it’s therefor better not to name it’, a ‘connection based on rivalry and unease and jealousy and drops of blood’. It is language that ties us together the most; language binds us with those around us and with those throughout all of human history.
Having repeatedly drawn our attention to language, Marías uses the entirety of his story to examine the act of storytelling. ‘I am the one who counts,’ he tells us, ‘the one telling the story and the one who decides who will speak… therein lies the pathetic superiority of the living, our temporary motive for triumph.’ It is not the victors who write history, but merely those who survive the events. ‘People are interpreted by other people’ and it is through language that we interpret others and our surrounding events, and language is ultimately a fallible device. Every word we utter drags its weight in connotations and the debris of both the teller and the listeners perceptions further taint each word. Marías gives us not only an unreliable narrator, but a narrator openly admitting to his unreliability while insisting upon it at the same time. ‘[N]o one does anything convinced of its injustice,’ he remarks as well as that ‘everything depends on the end result doesn’t it, and that includes everything, even if it’s only an instant in time, one particular action varies depending on the effect it has.’ This presents a reality in which truth and morality is subjective to an individual, and the reader must be ever conscious to see through the narrative as it is delivered by a mind utterly convinced of the validity of each action. What may come across as endearing could be viewed as creepy from an outside perspective, which is something we must all take to heart, remembering to think outside ourselves in our everyday interactions. If we do act in acknowledgement of the injustice of our actions, our soul buckles under the weight, and visions of ghosts may haunt us in our sleep. We become enshrouded in shadows, burdened by our desire to become whole again through the act of storytelling.
The most impressive idea is that once a story has left the lips of the teller, it becomes the property of all those that have heard it. While it may seem improbably that each speaker in the novel should be so well equipped to deliver such moving and poetic monologues as they do, it must be remembered that it is the narrator’s story, and there words are now his property to use and shape as he sees fit, to elaborate and polish. It is in his right to ‘forget what really happened and replace it with fiction’. He is by trade a ghostwriter, and wouldn’t it be only natural to ghostwrite the words of those he interacts with? However, what is most important is that this is a story being delivered unto us, the reader, to take hold in our hearts and minds, finding its own sense of immortality by being passed from one to another. When we seek meaning, entertainment, joy and solace in the words of a story, it isn’t the events that matter and why should it matter if they are fact or fiction, because it is how the story reverberates within us that matters most. It is how we internalize and reshape it to fit our ourselves so we can pass it on again.
’Our lives are often a continuous betrayal and denial of what came before, we twist and distort everything as time passes, and yet we are still aware, however much we deceive ourselves, that we are the keepers of secrets and mysteries, however trivial’
This novel simply blew me away. It came highly recommended from an extremely trustworthy source, and managed to not only reach, but to jump leaps and bounds over my expectations. It is one of my favorite novels now. Marías is a master of language, meandering at every possible chance to cast a loquacious flashlight into each crevasse of thought along the way, yet keeping an incredible intensity as he builds this psychological masterpiece. The text is dense and macabre, yet darkly humorous and uplifting at the same time. His ability to tie such a wide range of ideas together is staggering, from large themes and motifs to clever repeated actions such as shoelaces coming untied to emphasize the idea of a life coming unraveled despite all attempts to hold it together. I confess I had an extremely difficult time putting together this review, there is too much to discuss and the only method of tying it all together into a feasible and comprehensive manner is to just read the novel. Or perhaps this book took such a hold on my heart that I feel any attempt to turn it over would spoil and tarnish it with my fingerprints. This novel is truly amazing, and a truly amazing portrait of our struggle to find handholds in eternity while being sucked into oblivion. 5/5
‘When things come to an end they have a number and the world then depends on its storytellers, but only for a short time and not entirely, they never fully emerge from the shadows, other people are never quite done and there is always someone for whom the mystery continues.’ (less)
I often catch myself staring, rather lovingly in fact, at my bookshelves. Each shelf is swelling nearly to the point of overflowing with books, each a...moreI often catch myself staring, rather lovingly in fact, at my bookshelves. Each shelf is swelling nearly to the point of overflowing with books, each authors collection seemingly positioned at random - yet, somehow, the location of each work holds some secret form of order that is beyond even me. I'll caress each spine with my eyes, occasionally running a finger down it to feel a spark of retrospection and for a moment recall the times when I held a particular book during the course of absorbing it. I can often relate any major event in my life to the particular novel I was reading at the time, and vice versa, making my bookshelf an eternal, tangled web of my past. Perhaps this is why I never got into the electronic readers. I can understand their versatility and convenience, but there is a strange power felt while just holding a nice edition of a novel in your hands, especially after time has passed and you pick it back up just to feel its weight in your palms. Plus, I greatly enjoy scavenging through used book stores for old hardcovers and often traverse several stores before reading a novel I know I'll love just to be sure I have the edition that best suits me. One day I hope to have my own personal library; in my mind it looks much like the one from Beauty and the Beast a la Disney, but less cartoonish. Maybe it is an obsession, but literature fills a special place in my heart. It should, seeing as I owe a large sum of money back for furthering my education of it.
On the topic of obsession comes Hamsun's first novel, Hunger, published in 1890. As my eyes scanned each novel I had read in 2011, they stopped here and acknowledged this as my personal favorite novel I had read this past year. This book is a monumental achievement of psychological literature as it is a powerful examination of human consciousness. Hunger is a novel of a starving artist, meant in the most literal sense possible, who puts up with extreme hardship and hunger, suffering all for the pure sake of putting pen to paper. The reader is immersed in the nameless narrators consciousness, following him down the chilly streets of Christiana as he barely hangs on by a thread in pursuit of the next burst of genius to sell for small change in order to continue on. The reader is trapped in this unraveling mind, floating on his rantings and ravings that Hamsun details with eloquent precision, and watches as his moods shift and swing to and fro like a hinged door in a hellish hurricane.
I read this novel in a matter of two days, it is one that simply cannot be put down. I would set it aside and feel its pull begging me to transport myself back into the narrator and suffer his trials and tribulations with him. Although I read it perched on the side of a pool, my feet in the clear water and basking in the exquisit Michigan summer sun, I could not feel at ease as Hamsun projected the mania onto me. I felt much as the narrator felt, being drawn inside of him. He writes:
The dark had captured my brain and gave me not an instant of peace. What if I myself became dissolved into the dark, turned into it?
The novel moves in several parts, each taking place a few weeks after the previous and pitting the narrator in his most extreme moments of desperation. It will become quickly apparent that this narrator is no fool however, and is in fact quite brilliant. This brilliant mind weaves pages of lustrous prose and cutting insight to the world, and people, around him, yet we see him loose control and throw into a fit of anger and delirium and experience the occasional aberration of reality. It proposed the dilema, has he gone mad from hunger, or is he hungry because he has gone mad? Hamsun offers evidence to either side, yet leaves it up to you to draw conclusions. Hamsun intentionally conceives him out of contradictions, much like his hero Johan Nagel of his excellent sophomore novel Mysteries, showing him as brash but tender, kind yet callous, pathetic yet brave. He often comes into money but gives it all away to someone else while overcome with manic passions and seems to care little about his own lamentable conditions as if it were all some sort of game to him. He prays and speaks to God, trusting in his design, yet doubts his existence at the same time. This attention to the psychology of a frenzied, contradictory lead role has brought many comparions of Hamsun to Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his character Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. This is an apt comparison, although I felt Hamsun's narrator and the Underground man from Notes From Underground were more kindred spirits. This book could practically be a prequel to that novel of Dostoyevsky's.
This novel is one of Hamsun's most personal, as it draws heavily from his own life experiences. As Robert Bly's afterword describes, Hamsun spent most of his young life working hard labor for menial pay, and became very much an introvert from the lack of his peers whom he could converse about 'higher ideas' with. He spend much of this time hungry and exceedingly poor, and would go into fits of writing lofty incantations, yet, in the yellow morning, would see these pages as nothing but stanzas of gibberish and tear them up and toss the scraps into the street (if you caught the lifting of Ginsberg there, one thousand cool points are awarded to you. That's my favorite part). Perhaps Hamsun felt he was loosing grip on reality, much like his narrator. I read an essay of Hamsun once that said he was a wanderer, often moving to new places to get inspiration for novels and write in seclusion, and that he was highly popular with the female folk. The narrator seems an extension of Hamsun in this regard, as it is hinted that he is not a native of Chrisiana and has all across the map, and that even in his wretched state of malnutrition causing his ragged clothes to hang off him and his hair to fall out, he is still able to attract the affections of a local lady.
Hunger is not a novel you will ever forget. It sprouts deep roots within your heart and mind and will follow your thoughts wherever you go. If you are a first-time reader of the great Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, this is a perfect introduction. Although I don't like to give such a one-sided depiction of a novel, this is one that I cannot find anything negative for to say. Upon completion, I declared that some day I will teach this novel, it is that good and there is enough material for countless discussions. This was my favorite novel that I read in 2011, and I hope you read it. It would be a damn shame not to. 5/5
-I love a dream of love I once had, I love you, and I love this patch of earth. -And which do you love best? -The dream.
With his succinct 1894 novel, Pa...more-I love a dream of love I once had, I love you, and I love this patch of earth. -And which do you love best? -The dream.
With his succinct 1894 novel, Pan, Knut Hamsun once again displays his prowess of capturing the human psychology and detailing the internal conflicts that arise through the sudden rise and fall of moods. Through Glahn, the capricious man who has taken up residence within the northern wilderness and the socialite Edvarda, Hamsun demonstrates how even the slightest romantic collision of two souls can create a spark whose burn is felt long after the romance has begun to smolder. The irrationalities that exist in such a torrid affair between man and woman come alive in his prose and fiery dialogue as the reader experiences the pains and paranoia of chasing after an elusive lover.
Appearing in print only two years after Mysteries, an incredible account of an irrational stranger much like Glahn (and my favorite of his books), Hamsun appears much more matured, confidant and focused in his writing. While Mysteries was slightly bloated, Pan is trimmed down to a potent simplicity and directness. Returning to the first person narration similar to Hunger, the reader is treated to a troubled and unreliable mind to lead them through this tragic love story. The first section of the novel is Glahn’s journal, which he insists was purely ‘ to while away the time’ and amuse himself, shows him reflecting on the events of a previous summer. While he repeatedly mentions that Edvarda no longer crosses his mind, he continuously winds his way back to her in his accounts. The second section, written from an acquaintance of Glahn’s a year a short time after the journal, offers a slightly different image of the man. While Glahn portrays himself as socially inept, unattractive and clumsy, the second narrator displays him as a powerful foreign force in the world with a charm and chiseled looks that make him irresistible to women.
As the title would imply, this is a story of the forest with Glahn as a ‘Pan’ of sorts. He is a perfect blend of man and nature, coexisting with the wild in perfect harmony. While he is a hunter, he only kills what he must for bare survival, never taking more than what he needs to eat in the immediate future. He is also seemingly superhumanly in-tuned with nature, being able to tell the exact time through the flowers and trees and seemingly able to commune with the land on which he dwells. While his descriptions of society and the people he interacts with are exceedingly simplistic, the true prose of the novel blossoms in his depictions of nature and the reader feels the glowing sun, hears the rushing waters and smells the trees and grass through his words. In a novel of love and lust, the intimate scenes between him and his various lovers occur primarily offstage while the sexual imagery is reserved for nature:
’In the night hours of the forest, great white flowers have suddenly opened out, their chalices spread wide, and they breathe. And furry hawk-moths bury themselves in their petals and set the whole plant quivering. I go from flower to flower; they are in ecstasy, and I see their intoxication.’
He is Hamsun’s image of pure masculinity and a ideal blend of both creative and destructive powers, a mythical being both beast and man. Hamsun decorates the novel with allusions to fables, the most obvious the name of Glahn’s dog, Aesop, to help bring this idea of Pan alive in a realistic setting.
If Glahn is a symbol of the wild, then Edvarda is a symbol of society. She is well of high standings both financially and socially, playing hostess to many soirees and moving between multiple suitors. The pair are doomed from the start as Hamsun illustrates the infinite divide between well groomed society and the primal realm of the wild. Glahn is at ease in the forest, yet feels completely awkward and ill at ease in social settings and displays bizarre behavior and strange outbursts. Edvarda is a creature of irrationality as well, playing men off of one another and escaping into the wilderness in secret to satisfy more basic instincts of passions under the cover of night.
The frustration felt by Glahn as he grapples with his passion practically chokes the reader. He is just as in-tune with the body language of others as he is with nature, and is constantly analyzing Edvarda in social settings. In the forest, she goes wild with emotion, yet in society she is cold, calculating and inaccessible. She dismisses his advances yet keeps him on the line with one sweet smile or insistence that he be the last to leave, yet refuses to let on to any romantic entanglement in the company of others. It is a blockage of passion that crushes souls and forces one to act out if only to be acknowledged. Always being one with nature, the romance is played out with the seasons with fall darkening the tone of the novel and ushering us towards certain chilly doom and destruction.
Never has there been an author whose words have sung better harmony to the melody of my soul as Hamsun. His characters come alive wonderfully through his careful prose and marvelously plotted out shifts and moods. This is a novel for anyone who has loved, anyone who has lost, and anyone who has squirmed in frustration over a ill-fated tryst. Despite the meager size of the novel, Pan is another knock out and delivers just as much emotional impact and literary brilliance as Hamsun’s other novels while being much warmer and heartfelt than his previous works while setting the grounds for a further investigation of the rift between nature and society that he explores in Growth of the Soil. Satisfy your primal instincts and enter the dark forest of Hamsun’s mind. The dream of love always burns brighter than the loves we use to bandage our wounds.
A quick note on the translation I read the James W. McFarlane translation, an older translation published by Noonday (of which Goodreads seems not to have in their various editions). While it still delivers, I would direct anyone towards a different translator. The newer Penguin edition would probably be a better choice. While Hamsun’s poetic might is strong enough to punch through, I felt I was missing some of the flow that I glimpsed in his other books. It was as if McFarlane was hitting all the right notes, but not letting them truly flow. (less)
Hamsun’s aptly named second novel, Mysteries, is a dazzling, dark look into human nature and man’s psyche. It is no surprise that Henry Miller claimed...moreHamsun’s aptly named second novel, Mysteries, is a dazzling, dark look into human nature and man’s psyche. It is no surprise that Henry Miller claimed that Mysteries was ’closer to me than any book I have read,’ this novel is so probing and insightful that you feel it begin to pick your own mind as the pages churn by. Written in 1892, just 2 years following Hunger, this novel once again demonstrates Hamsun’s signature frantic yet serene prose while showcasing Hamsun as a Modernist far ahead of his time and a master of the ‘psychological novel’. Plunging into the existential mysteries of the human heart and soul, Hamsun pens some of his most memorable characters while keeping the reader forever pondering the truth behind the abundant mysteries.
As always when it comes to speaking of Hamsun, it should be noted that it is a crying shame how his work has been passed over and that his name is relatively unheard nowadays due to his sympathetic association to the Nazi party during WWII. I went into more detail of this in my review for Growth of the Soil, but this association cost him his fame and caused to widespread burning of his books in Norway and the relative popular neglect for his works in the United States following the war. If you can put his late life politics aside, you will find an incredible author whose name holds up to his comparisons to Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Mysteries places the human psyche under Hamsun’s microscope. Much like his first novel, the great Hunger, this novel follows the concise rise and fall of emotions in the protagonist, creating a well rounded depiction of a man in the grips of mania and excitement. We follow the loquacious ravings, often liquor-fueled, of our hero, Johan Nilsen Nagel, from a calm steady conversation to the height of frenzy, and are shown glimpses through a cloudy window of the mind to his introspective obsessions. This is fully believable and creates for an intense, unpredictable character.
There is a wonderfully ironic moment when Martha Gude takes leave of Nagel to go see a preforming magician since the real magician of this novel is Nagel himself who preforms an elaborate smoke and mirrors trick of personality throughout the novel. The true nature of Nagel, is never fully revealed, instead, the reader must discern what they can as small pieces of the whole are glimpsed, then hidden again behind contradictory evidence. This eccentric stranger, dressed in a loud yellow suit who keeps the town on edge and full of gossip with his erratic behavior, is a ’walking contradiction’, as Dagny is quick to point out and Nagel is eager to uphold. The reader learns of his lifesavers medal, for example, which he speaks aloud that he earned rescuing a drowning man while on passage to Hamburg, however later on, he adamantly claims to Dagny that is was purchased from a pawn store. He tells the town he is an agronomist, yet it is hinted that this is merely a ruse. Even his name may be false. The biggest insights can only be hinted through a cryptic conversation between him and a former lover whom speak in ’elliptical allusions to the past and used words and phrases that had meaning only for them’.
The nature of this novel is akin to the mysterious nature of the protagonist. Choosing to write from a third person perspective, Hamsun is able to remove the reader from any situation that could give too much away. Unlike Hunger where the reader was a fly on the wall of the narrators internal monologues, the secrets of Nagel are kept from us. Hamsun does occasionally have Nagel speak aloud in long tirades of his inner thoughts, but this is used sparingly and creates a bit of unevenness in the writing, although it is ultimately not distracting. This third person perspective is highly efficient to the delivery of this story, as the reader often learns of Nagel’s whereabouts from his mouth as he professes them to the townsfolk. However, the reader quickly learns to take everything with a grain of salt and we are often left wondering if he speaks the truth, or perhaps even a half-truth.
Hamsun makes remarkable use of Nagel’s long, mercurial rants, often crafting them as small allegories of the surrounding events and people. Nagel speaks in a breathtaking prose laden with symbols and metaphors that always tell much more just beneath the surface of his sparkling words. His tales are often elaborate and outlandish, earning him quite a reputation around town. He also uses Nagel as his mouthpiece for literary and political criticisms, bashing many of the Norwegian politicians of the day, criticizing the capital city and the artists who inhabit it (although, speaking of contradictions, he spoke lovingly of this city, Kristiana, in the opening lines of Hunger), and spitting a brutal assault on both Leo Tolstoy and the highly regarded Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibesn. To digress a mere moment, Hamsun was an outspoken critic of Ibsen, who was quite popular at the time. In the year succeeding the popular release of Hunger, Hamsun invited Ibsen to attend a lecture of his and offered him the front and center seat in a room full of other writers of great notoriety. He then went on to lambaste Ibsen’s work to his face saying his plays were ’indefensibly coarse and artificial psychology’. There is an article featuring this story and a good overview of Hamsun’s biography here.
The real brilliance of this novel is how Nagel serves as a barometer of human nature and in juxtaposition with him, the true nature of the various members of the town can be seen with crystal clear accuracy. While Nagel may be erratic and potentially manic, his boldness reveals an unapologetic image of himself, which brings out the truth in others. The closed mindedness, the destructiveness, the arrogance, and all the other hidden demons float to the surface around Nagel. This can also show a character in a positive light, or just as a harmless windbag who cannot help but vomit their opinions into any available ear. Nagel asserts that there are no selfless acts and that every man has a secret vice, including those who may seem like the most saintly, good-natured folk among us. Each one of us carries a bit of demon somewhere inside. While one may give a small chunk of change to a beggar on the street may seem as ‘selfless’ as it gets, Nagel would argue that does this not cause the giver to feel an inner peace at helping another, which is itself a selfish reward. This existential probe begs the reader to examine his or her own life, and examine their own opinion on Nagel as it may reveal a great deal about them.
This story has no true linear plot, but sets Hamsun’s colorful cast in one town and allows them to simply interact. Due to this storytelling device, many critics have labeled Hamsun as one of the first early Modernists, and many authors followed in his footsteps. Ernest Hemingway claimed that ’Hamsun taught me to write’ (thanks wiki), and after reading the often drunk and frenzied lead characters of his early works one can understand why Charles Bukowski was such a fervent fan and claimed he used Hamsun as a ’writing crutch’. His unique style, voice, and his monumental simplistic prose have caused him to quickly become one of my favorites. This novel is not as direct and concise as Hunger, yet it can be felt that Hamsun was reaching his talents out to greater heights and experimenting with perspective and layering of time (there are many amazing instances where Hamsun will seamlessly follow from various past incidents and present goings-on all within one flowing paragraph without the reader becoming lost), so the rough patches that are slightly noticeable within this book are understandable. He makes up for it ten-fold.
Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that one should not ’read books for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters… but for the sake of their form, their visions, their art’ ( Lectures on Literature). I have always tried to keep this in mind while devouring a novel, and I have very much appreciated this novel for its aesthetic purposes (I hope), but I fell for that infantile impulse to identify with Nagel. He has become one of my favorite characters found in literature, right up there with the Underground Man and Steinbeck's Samuel Hamilton. While this novel isn’t quite as close to perfection as Hunger, which few novels are, Mysteries is my favorite of Hamsun’s novels, although I would recommend the former if you are looking for an introduction to his work. This novel has an ending out of left field and will keep your mind spinning for days to come as you try to piece together the mysteries Nagel left behind. Who is this eccentric stranger? Does he really know more than he lets on, and how does he know these secrets that lurk inside? Is he crazy, or simply genius? Hamsun leaves that for you to decide. 4.75/5 (less)
“One may transcend any convention,” writes Mitchell’s 1930’s composer Robert Frobisher, “if only one can first conceive of doing so.” Cloud Atlas, the...more“One may transcend any convention,” writes Mitchell’s 1930’s composer Robert Frobisher, “if only one can first conceive of doing so.” Cloud Atlas, the third novel by English novelist David Mitchell, is the author’s bare-knuckled blow to standard conventions and literature itself. Here you will encounter six stories, linked across time, that, like individual notes of a chord, each resonate together to form a greater message than just the sum of their parts. Using a style inspired by Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler…, which I would highly recommend, and a constantly fluctuating set of language, diction, dialect, and form to flood each individual story with nuance, Mitchell delivers a work that is vastly impressive and imaginative without being impassive as each story takes on a life of its own in a perfect blending of literary musings and exciting page-turning plot that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
While explaining this novel to a friend, I labeled it as being “literary pulp”. He protested, saying that you can only have one or the other. I agreed with him that this is typically the case, yet I insisted that Cloud Atlas was the exception to this rule. While each individual story has an exciting plot full of unexpected twists, often incorporating a Hollywood action or sci-fi style, Mitchell manages to elevate the novel into a higher realm of literature. Mitchell, who studied English at the University of Kent, receiving a master in Comparative Literature (thanks wiki!), has learned enough tricks of the trade to pull-off this sort of “literary pulp”. Each one of these stories on their own wouldn’t amount to much beyond an exciting read with a few underlying messages, but when he stitches them all together in an elaborate tapestry of time and space, a larger more profound message comes out as the reader will notice overarching themes and a careful reading will reveal a sense of symmetry and repetition between the stories. There is also a sense of an evolution of language, showing past trends progressing into our current speech, and then passing forward where corporate name brands will become the identifier of an object (all cars are called fords, handheld computers are all called sonys, all movies are called disneys), and then even further forward as language begins to disintegrate. The themes of the novel also seem to move in a cyclical pattern, showing repeating itself.
As stated earlier, Mitchell was inspired by Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler in which the Reader is exposed to several different novels within the novel, each with a very distinct voice and style, only to be forever thwarted from finishing just as the action rises. Mitchell takes this idea and expands upon it, with each story ending abruptly yet still resonating in the following story, which then leads us to the next and the next until finally we reach the midpoint of the novel. I do not want to spoil too much of this novel, especially his way of each story being a part of the next, but by page 64 you will understand. There will be a paragraph that will drop your jaw and melt your mind as you realize Mitchell has something special here in his method of telescoping stories. Essentially, each major character leaves an account of a crucial storyline of their lives, which in turn is read or viewed later through history by another character during a crucial moment in their lives. An added flair is that many of the characters relate to their current events by comparing it to characters or ideas from previous stories, one character even becoming a deity figure to future generations. At the midpoint, which Mitchell describes as his “mirror”, the novel will then travel back out of the wormhole (or perhaps back in?), revisiting the previous stories in reverse order. There is a good interview with Mitchell in the Washington Post where he explains his methods.
Mitchell employs other metafictional techniques, such as having his characters each reflect on the style of the novel as would make sense for their unique world. For example, Frobisher’s masterpiece composition, aptly named Cloud Atlas, is described by Frobisher as being: ”a sextet for overlapping soloists”….each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Mitchell himself calls the style to the table, asking the reader if it is really a revolutionary idea, or if it falls flat as a gimmick. There are many instances where Mitchell inserts a bemused reflection on his own work, wondering if he is actually pulling off the magic trick.
Each story visited is as if cracking open the cover of a different book by a different author each time the switch occurs. There is everything from a dusty sailing journal, a hilarious English comedy, a sleek sci-fi thriller and to even an oral account of tribal warfare on the other side of the apocalypse, each with an equally intriguing cast of characters (fans of Mitchell will recognize some of them as they appear in other novels, most notably Ghostwritten which includes Luisa Rey, Cavendish and Ayr’s daughter). Mitchell does his homework and spent plenty of time researching each story to make sure the history, setting and language would all be realistic. As all but the spy-thriller story of Luisa Rey are told in first person, Mitchell has his work cut out for him to craft a unique voice for each narrator. And he pulls it off brilliantly. This attention to detail and nuance is what really sold me on Cloud Atlas. To go from Cavendish’s comical voice filled with English slang (and some hilarious instances of cockney and Scottish diction) to an oral language that shows the deterioration of speech two stories later is impressive. My personal favorite was the loquacious letters of Robert Frobisher, as Mitchell wrote this Nietzsche loving composer with the urgency and depravity of a frantic, brilliant mind that recalls characters such as Dostoevsky’s underground man or Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger. Mitchell toys with his knowledge of literature, molding each story from the recipes of classic literature. Adam Ewing is clearly a product of Melville, Cavendish’s plight echoes Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Sonmi-451 will bring to mind Brave New World or Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? Zachary’s islander tale uses a form of sight language drawing on the oral tradition of storytelling which reflects the traditional African American stories such as the Uncle Julius tales or Equiano’s slave narratives where much emphasis is placed on the passing on of stories about ancestors. There are even small events that trigger a memory of classic works; Frobisher is passenger in a car that runs down a pheasant which is described in a way that would remind one of a certain accident involving a yellow car at the tail end of a Fitzgerald novel. He even takes a jab at Ayn Rand in the Luisa Rey story.
Mitchell seems to intentionally build this novel from other novels, and highlights this to the reader most openly through Timothy Cavendish and Robert Frobisher. “You’ll find that all composure draw inspiration from their environments” Ayrs tells R.F. in one of the many passages where Mitchell talks both about his storyline, but also about the novel itself. This honing of metafictional abilities is one of his greatest strengths and the second half of the novel is full of passages that speak on many different levels. Mitchell takes no shame in “drawing inspiration” from his literary predecessors, much as each subsequent character draws on the inspiration of the past characters. He uses this as opportunities to shamelessly quote, allude, and incorporate the ideas of other writers. Nietzsche’s concept of the Will to Power and Hegel’s theories on history make up some of the strongest themes within the novel, and he gives credit where credit is due. While allusions are used for thematic reasons, some are more deeply hidden, sometimes in plain sights as Nabokov titles are used frequently, and occasionally he simply alludes to authors of each stories present time (Luisa Rey's boss was mugged after having lunch with Norman Mailer) to make them feel more rooted to the literary culture of the time much as he does with the language and descriptions. He even pokes fun at the reader a bit, acknowledging that the casual reader will not be able to pick up on these allusions, speaking through Cavendish: ”I could say things to her like ‘The most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy is a liquid’ and, safe in her ignorance of J.D. Salinger, I felt witty, charming, and yes, even youthful”. He may be using ‘youthful’ as a way of saying that he must come across as fresh and exciting and inventive, which is ironic since he openly admits to borrowing the whole novels concept from Calvino. Mitchell appreciates and rewards the well-read reader with many of these subtle ironic jokes which are sprinkled all through-out the novel. He leaves so many little gems for a reader to find if they only take the time to read in between the lines and pay close attention. One might notice how several different characters “fumigate” a foul smelling room with a cigarette, or how diamonds seem to play an important role, or which characters seem repeated throughout history beyond the main character. Bill Smoke (pure evil) and Joe Napier (an ally) seem to pop up in some form in every story. I have noticed at least four other souls that seem to migrate through time in this novel.
Like a healthy, well-balanced sense of self, Mitchell seems to be aware of his weaknesses as a writer and actually uses them to his advantage, making his weaknesses some of his biggest strengths. It is clear, as the point has by now been driven into the ground, that Mitchell has aims to be taken seriously as a writer of literature, but his plots are such rapid-fire excitement with twists and turns and high climactic conclusions that he felt it necessary to be as literary as possible in all other aspects. He compensates for any other shortcomings in a similar fashion. One of the ways the characters are linked together across time (read it yourself if you want to know!) made me groan the first time I read it. Mitchell accepts that it is a corny technique and has a character flat out dismiss it as ”far too hippie-druggy-new age” and as something that should be taken out entirely. I got a kick out of this and instantly forgave Mitchell for not being subtle enough with this technique of linking characters. There are several other moments when characters question the validity of other characters, often due to the same reasons a reader would criticize Mitchell. This ability to poke fun at himself and openly address his own shortcomings gave me a far greater respect for him. He accepts that his ideas are not entirely original and counters anyone who might complain it has all been done before. Cavendish speaks for Mitchell with ”as if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void-Webber. As if Art is the What, not the How! ” He wants to direct your attention to his form and writing, not just his plot and originality. He repeatedly bashes critics and the masses, essentially stating that if you don’t get this novel, then you’re not smart enough to deserve to read his work. It made me laugh.
With all his cleverness and metafictional genius, Mitchell does have a few flaws that should be addressed. The main one being subtlety. He does apologize for it and poke fun at himself, but some of the major themes in this novel did not need to be called out directly. They were easily detectable in between the lines, yet Mitchell has each main character spell them out in dialogue. He seems to want to reward the clever reader, yet at times pauses and hits you over the head as if he doesn’t think you can understand. It worked since he had each character do it, applying the message of The Will to Power and the strong killing the weak to each characters situation to create a sense of symmetry, but it was ultimately superfluous, but this being my only real criticism, Mitchell isn't doing too bad. The issue of subtlety is where Calvino gets an upper hand on Mitchell, as his novel was a bit more controlled in its message and layering of meanings. Cloud Atlas is a bit more accessible than If on a winter's... but the latter is a slightly superior work in my opinion. Both novels should enter your "to read list" however.
All in all, this novel is a brilliant puzzle filled with exciting characters, entertaining dialogue, and throws enough loops to keep you guessing. You will find it very difficult to put this novel down. Mitchell achieves his goal of transcending conventions and addressing the broad scope of humanity and is at times bitter, funny, frightening, paranoid, and downright tragic. Cloud Atlas is a must read, and although much of it may come across as “been there, read that”, he still keeps it fresh and unique. Plus this novel really rewards a careful reading and a bit of researching, as many of the jokes will be lost on those who don’t have a good grounding in the classics. Make sure to have a pen handy, as there are plenty of mesmerizing quotes to return to and ponder, especially in the second half of the novel. David Mitchell is most definitely an author to be read and admired.”Anticipating the end of the world is humanity’s oldest pastime” writes Frobisher, and this novel envisions a plausible, horrific future that doesn’t seem all that much different than the past. Mitchell gives us this novel as a warning, and I do hope we take it to heart. I wish this novel had credits like at the end of the film just so Reckoner by Radiohead could blast my eardrums as final lines sunk in. It would be perfect. 5/5 (less)
Often considered one of the ‘greatest novel of the 20th century’, James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, is a feat, and feast, of sheer literary brillian...moreOften considered one of the ‘greatest novel of the 20th century’, James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, is a feat, and feast, of sheer literary brilliance. Reimagining Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey as the travels of an everyday man through the crowded streets and pubs of Dublin, Joyce weaves strikingly versatile prose styles and varying perspectives to encompass the whole of life within the hours of a single standard day, June 16th, 1904. This day, dubbed Bloomsday, is celebrated with increasing popularity in modern times, which is a testament to the lasting greatness of the novel (and to the desire to drink and be merry of all people). Instead of taking a daily life and elevating it to mythical proportions, Joyce has taken mythology and reversed it, shrinking it into an average day, which in turn gives each character and action a heroic sense about them. In this way, even besting a drunken nationalist spewing anti-sematic sentiments at a bar can be seen as a legendary conquest. Ulysses is an epic in its own right, setting the bar for literature up to the stratosphere as we immerse ourselves in Joyce’s dear dirty Dublin.
While one must have their wits about them to navigate this laborious labyrinth of literature, the task is highly rewarding. It is very understandable that so many people do not finish this novel, or just plain dislike it; this book can be downright frustrating. Combining the heavy use of cryptic and dated allusions, obfuscating narration, an enviable vocabulary and pages of dense prose to decipher, Joyce intentionally set out to create a literary odyssey of words to conquer saying ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.’ Readers should be warned this is a tough novel. Often times this novel inspired such frustration that it was tempting to slam the cover for good, and it wasn’t until the second half that I was finally able to recognize that this novel had written its way into my heart. Upon reflecting back after completion, only then did I realize that this truly is one of the greatest books ever written and I have come to love it. Perhaps this is akin to the feeling those who run marathons or climb mountains feel; the adventure is a long, arduous struggle where one must keep focus and positive to battle through, yet the pride and elation of completion more than makes up for the struggles. I do not wish to make this book seem like it is only for masochists though, as there are more than enough rewards to reap along the way. This is some of the finest displays of writing I have ever encountered, and offers a broad range of style. Many people fail to mention that this book is downright funny as well. There are countless little jokes, such as characters running from a bar so they can fart loudly unheard, endless sexual jokes and quips, and many funny characterizations. It should be noted as well that there is no shame in seeking aide for this book. Originally I didn’t want to, but there are so many esoteric allusions and puzzles that an annotation guide and a few essays really helped my understanding. This is a novel to teach to yourself, not just read – there are people who spent years at universities digging through this book and it is still widely debated. Even the great Ulysses (or Odysseus depending on who your asking) had to seek aide in his epic journey.
The variety of style in this book is highly impressive. Each of the 18 chapters, aside from being thematically built around a corresponding episode of The Odyssey, has its own unique set of techniques and lexicon, often parodying the styles of newspapers or current women’s magazines, traditional Irish mythological styles, a chapter dissolving the world into scientific properties, the famous stream-of-consciousness, 200 pages of jocular hallucinations in play format, and a dizzying array of prose from flowery language to the language of flowers. Joyce had such a love of style that there is even an entire chapter devoted to alternating writing styles as he parodies many famous authors throughout history (calling all fans of David Mitchell or If on a winter's night a traveler) in a swirling scene of drunken debates. The language is often quite playful, lyrical and full of puns. He even uses sentence structure to convey motion, such as Gerty’s limp: ‘Tight boots? No. She’s lame! O!’. If just for the use of language alone, this is one of the most spectacular books ever written and practically killed my dictionary. Also, it is interesting that C.G. Jung diagnosed Joyce as having schizophrenia based on reading this book due to the rapidly changing styles and the use of playful rhyming and jangling speech. Joyce's daughter did in fact have schizophrenia.
One of Ulysses most discussed features is Joyce's technique of placing the reader within the minds of the characters. It is not a typical first person narration, however, as the characters are seemingly unaffected and unaware they have a reader riding along in their thoughts. Information comes across in broken and random spurts, and Joyce does not bother with clarifying these thoughts to the reader. Much like William Faulkner, Joyce leaves the reader unaided to piece together his massive puzzle. Often the subject of a thought can switch between several people without any indication, as with Boylan and Bloom in Molly’s soliloquy, and many chapters take pages to realize who the person speaking is. While initially following Stephen and then Bloom second by second through their routine, the novel soon fractures into smaller chunks of concurrent narration, to further fit all of life within the day and to offer a broader, more varied perspective on the events that transpire. The idea of the ‘parallax’, which is essentially a scientific term that different perspectives will have a uniquely different view of the same object, is often on Bloom’s mind, and is a major theme running through this novel. Through the multiple points of view, the reader is flooded with alternative, and often conflicting, images of the characters. The readers must then decide themselves what is the whole picture.
The various speakers are another testament to the versatility of the pen employed by Joyce. Each speaker has a drastically different tone and vocabulary, as well as structure (most notably Molly). There are times when the reader may wonder if Joyce’s opinions on the Jewish people and women may be rather negative, but then he will surprise you with a completely opposing statement. Women, and sexuality in general, are a major topic in this novel, and it is no surprise many have dismissed Joyce as a misogynist as many of the women in this novel are viewed strictly in regards to their sexuality. There are many female roles who are only used to further this idea, often by having many characters be prostitues. Through Bloom we see an unapologetic image of women as a sexual objects, and a male opinion on how women view sexuality. However, with Molly, Joyce offers a highly contrasted opinion on how women view their own sexuality, how women view men’s sexuality, and even how women view how men view women’s sexuality. Molly even fantasizes about having a penis and what it would be like to mount a woman. So while some ideas may be offensive to a reader, they must view it with an open mind and in the context of the novel and characters. Also, Joyce was aware of the overzealous censorship of novels in England and America and often wrote passages that blew past the lines intentionally to irk these censors. No wonder the novel was banned in American until 1934 when the Supreme Court over-turned the ruling in a landmark obscenity trial.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet plays just as much of a role in this novel as the Odyssey. This further emphasizes the parallax, and Joyce’s goal to keep the life of his characters grounded in reality by not aligning any of the characters in a clear cut way. Hamlet is often discussed amongst the intelligentsia of Dublin, and a critical scene involves Stephen’s interpretation of the play revealing many themes of the novel at hand. From the ideas of Stephen’s role as Telemachus searching for a surrogate father in Bloom’s Ulysses as well as the ongoing thoughts over adultery all reveal themselves early on through Stephen’s lecture on Hamlet. However, this scene also demonstrates that Stephen is a Hamlet figure as well as Bloom being a figure of the deceased King, and that Molly may also fit the role of the betraying Queen as well as Penelope. There are many other roles in this novel that have more than one character that could fill them, such as how both Buck Mulligan and Blazes Boylan are both ‘usurpers’. It is interesting to note here that many of the characters, Mulligan in particular, are based from people Joyce interacted with in real life. ‘The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.’, is said at a timely manner when Stephen explores how the characters of Hamlet all correspond to Shakespeare’s own family, much like how these characters correspond to those around Bloom and to those that were surrounding Joyce. Stephen is also highly representative of Joyce himself. He was the hero of Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and in this novel we see him continue his quest of artistry. He even sides with an unborn child in a debate over whether a mother or child’s life is more important during birth, signifying his ideas that art, something we create, is of the utmost importance. A touch of metafiction as well as a compounding use of themes is one of the many ways this book stole my heart.
Joyce avoids distinct lines anywhere he can with this novel. Characters such as Bloom are walking contradictions and a paradox to those around him. He is Jewish, but also baptized. He is a father figure, but also displays many motherly traits and desires causing the more masculine characters to harbor a bit of disdain for him for being rather ‘womanly’. He is very caring and generous, but then at times very cheap and critical of others for their generosity. Such is the enigma of Leopold Bloom, one of the most likeable everyman characters in all of literature (it was very difficult not to picture him as George Clooney from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, another wonderful retelling of The Odyssey). He is not without his faults though, as he is a shameless womanizer and has the ‘undressing eyes’ aimed at all the fair ladies of Dublin (and what is with Joyce and men masturbating in public, ie The Encounter from Dubliners? I’m on to you Joyce…). Bloom spends much of this novel on the go, trying to move forward from the sadness of his past and the weight of thoughts of his wife’s possible transgressions. ‘Think you’re escaping and run into yourself,’ Bloom mentions. His ‘coming together’ with Stephen is also grounded in reality, as there is no clear-cut bond between them. ‘Frailty thy name is marriage’ Bloom thinks, playing off of the famous line from Hamlet. The marriage of Bloom and Stephen, Bloom and Molly, and many other ‘marriages’ of characters are fraught with incompatible moments, as people just do not always get along or agree. While the union of Bloom and Stephen is alluded to through the entire novel, they often are at odds with one another or offend the other while trying to be friendly. However, this meeting is highly significant in both their lives, and as many of these ‘marriages’ are flawed, they are shown as having shaped each individual. As C.G. Jung once wrote, ‘The meeting of two personalities is like the contact between two chemical substances. If there is any reaction, both are transformed.’
Ulysses is not an easy novel by any means, but it is well worth the effort. The prose may be daunting at first, but patients, and a bit of guidance can really go a long way and this novel will eventually bloom for any reader so they can drink the sweet language of Joyce’s pen. There are so many wonderful techniques buzzing about and puzzles to unlock. Plus, this novel is outright hilarious. For one of the more comprehensive reviews you can find, you should also read Ian's stunning review. Joyce has certainly left his mark on the face of literature with this novel, which is more than deserving of the title bestowed on it by the Modern Library of the greatest novel of the 20th century. Yes it is the greatest and yes you should read it and yes each word will blossom in your mind and Yes will I give this book a 5/5 and yes I said yes I will Yes. 5/5
Also, reading this book in public will make you appear smart.
James Joyce (as translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni)
In a man’s single day are all the days of time from that unimaginable first day, when a terrible God marked out the days and agonies, to that other, when the ubiquitous flow of earthly time goes back to its source, Eternity, and flickers out in the present, the past, and the future—what now belongs to me. Between dawn and dark lies the history of the world. From the vault of night I see at my feet the wanderings of the Jew, Carthage put to the sword, Heaven and Hell. Grant me, O Lord, the courage and the joy to ascend to the summit of this day.(less)
‘The gates of grammar closed behind him. Search for him now in the groves and wild forests of the dictionary.’ Czesław Miłosz (30 June 1911 – 14 August...more‘The gates of grammar closed behind him. Search for him now in the groves and wild forests of the dictionary.’ Czesław Miłosz (30 June 1911 – 14 August 2004)
1980 ‘s Nobel Laureate, and my personal favorite poet, Czesław Miłosz left behind a beautiful collection of poetry and political thought that chronicles both the human suffering during the 20th century as well as his own personal experiences, triumphs and tribulations as he went from war-town Poland to the United States. Often recognized more for his political musings, such as those in the excellent book The Captive Mind, Miłosz always stressed that he was first a foremost a poet. His poetry, however, does contain some of his greatest political statements and insights as Miłosz used his poetry as a method to speak against the totalitarian mindset and stand up for human rights. Provocative, moving, and glimmering with gorgeous prose, Miłosz’s works taken as a whole form a breathtaking portrait of an extraordinary man.
‘ The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.’
Much of Miłosz early work is centered around the Polish political climate, and understandably so as political unrest and war was a constant part of his early life. Even his birth was directly affected by the political climate, his parents fleeing to Lithuania for several years to escape the political turmoil, not returning until the new Polish state was established after WWI. His early catholic upbringing and his political activism while studying at the University, becoming involved with a radical group of contemporary poets, were the early seeds that would continue to grow and blossom throughout his body of work. Many of the horrors witnessed during WWII, and their effects on his contemporaries, is documented in The Captive Mind, illustrating his distaste for the totalitarian mindset and the lethal temptations of a totalitarian mentality on the activist intellectual. His memories of the war burn brightly in much of his early poetry.
Flight When we were fleeing the burning city And looked back from the first fiel path, I said “Let the grass grow over our footprints, Let the harsh prophets fall silent in the fire, Let the dead explain to the dead what happened. We are fated to beget a new and violent tribe Free from the evil and the happiness that drowsed there Let us go” – and the earth was opened for us by a sword of flames.
Living under communist rule after WWII was crushing to Miłosz, who watched friends and literary heroes fall victim to the party lines, selling out their integrity to write bright banners of praise for their oppressors. One of my personal favorite Miłosz poems – the final lines are so chilling! -speaks out against the evils done upon the common man by such obdurate, tyrannical forces:
You Who Wronged You who wronged a simple man Bursting into laughter at the crime, And kept a pack of fools around you To mix good and evil, to blur the line,
Though everyone bowed down before you, Saying virtue and wisdom lit your way, Striking gold medals in your honor, Glad to have survived another day,
Do not feel safe. The poet remembers. You can kill one, but another is born. The words are written down, the deed, the date.
And you’d have done better with a winter dawn, A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.
Miłosz spent these years working for the underground resisitance and publishing poetry under the pseudonym J. Syruc.
In 1951, having been sent to Paris to serve as a cultural attache by the Communist government, Miłosz defected and remained in France under political asylum until moving to the United States in 1960 to teach at the University of California, Berkeley (his poem A Magic Mountain comments on his time spent living in Berkeley). Miłosz’s feelings of alienation living in a foreign land and communicating in a foreign language permeate much of his poetry. His homeland was lost to him behind the Iron Curtain, and he was lost to them as all of his works were banned after his defection (the ban would be released after his 1980 Nobel Prize, Poland having no qualms then claiming him as a national hero with international success).
'One after another my former lives were departing, like ships, together with their sorrow.'
Much of my favorite Miłosz is written in the last quarter of his life and contains his reflection on his life as a whole, his thoughts on aging and the poetic grappling with impending, inevitable death.
At A Certain Age We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers. White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind was too busy visiting sea after sea. We did not succeed in interesting the animals. Dogs, disappointed, expected an order, A cat, as always immoral, was falling asleep. A person seemingly very close Did not care to hear of things long past. Conversations with friends over vodka or coffee Ought not to be prolonged beyond the first sign of boredom. It would be humiliating to pay by the hour A man with a diploma, just for listening. Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess there what? That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble Yet later in our place an ugly toad Half-opens its thick eyelid And one sees clearly: “That’s me.”
Miłosz passed in 2004, but his body of work is immortal. He was always a believer in the immortal truth, and that this truth was best expressed through poetry. In his poem on the morning of the death of Zbigniew Herbert, Miłosz says the poet is only a vessel, someone that ‘serves’ this truth, and concludes speaking of the immortal word as such:
Liberated from the phantoms of psychosis, from the screams of perishing tissue, from the agony of the impaled one,
It wanders through the world, Forever, clear.
Rest well Miłosz, your truth will float forever and touch the hearts of many. And that is a life well lived. 5/5
If you can’t tell, Miłosz is my absolute favorite, so I’ve included a few other of my favorite poems below:
An Alcoholic Enters the Gates of Heaven What kind of man I was to be you’ve known since the beginning, since the beginning of every creature.
It must be horrible to be aware, simultaneously, of what is, what was, and what will be.
I began my life confident and happy, certain that the Sun rose every day for me and that flowers opened for me every morning. I ran all day in an enchanted garden.
Not suspecting that you had picked me from the Book of Genes for another experiment altogether. As if there were not proof enough that free will is useless against destiny.
Under your amused glance I suffered like a caterpillar impaled on the spike of a blackthorn. The terror of the world opened itself to me.
Could I have avoided escape into illusion? Into a liquor which stopped the chattering of teeth and melted the burning ball in my breast and made me think I could live like others?
I realized I was wandering from hope to hope and I asked you, All Knowing, why you torture me. Is it a trial like Job’s, so that I call faith a phantom and say: You are not, nor do your verdicts exist, and the earth is ruled by accident?
Who can contemplate simultaneous, a-billion-times-multiplied pain?
It seems to me that people who cannot believe in you deserve our praise.
But perhaps because you were overwhelmed by pity, you descended to the earth to experience the condition of mortal creatures.
Bore the pain of crucifixion for a sin, but committed by whom?
I pray to you, for I do not know how not to pray.
Because my heart desires you, though I do not believe you would cure me.
And so it must be, that those who suffer will continue to suffer, praising your name.
Ars Poetica? I have always aspired to a more spacious form that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose and would let us understand each other without exposing the author or reader to sublime agonies.
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent: a thing is brought forth which we didn't know we had in us, so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out and stood in the light, lashing his tail.
That's why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion, though its an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel. It's hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from, when so often they're put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.
What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons, who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues, and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand, work at changing his destiny for their convenience?
It's true that what is morbid is highly valued today, and so you may think that I am only joking or that I've devised just one more means of praising Art with thehelp of irony.
There was a time when only wise books were read helping us to bear our pain and misery. This, after all, is not quite the same as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.
And yet the world is different from what it seems to be and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings. People therefore preserve silent integrity thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.
The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person, for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, and invisible guests come in and out at will.
What I'm saying here is not, I agree, poetry, as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly, under unbearable duress and only with the hope that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
Encounter We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn. A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road. One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive, Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they going The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles. I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
Meaning When I die, I will see the lining of the world. The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset. The true meaning, ready to be decoded. What never added up will add Up, What was incomprehensible will be comprehended. - And if there is no lining to the world? If a thrush on a branch is not a sign, But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day Make no sense following each other? And on this earth there is nothing except this earth? - Even if that is so, there will remain A word wakened by lips that perish, A tireless messenger who runs and runs Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies, And calls out, protests, screams.
Christopher Robin (written upon hearing of the death of the real Christopher Robin. How touching is this one?) I must think suddenly of matters too difficult for a bear of little brain. I have never asked myself what lies beyond the place where we live, I and Rabbit, Piglet and Eeyore, with our friend Christopher Robin. That is, we continued to live here, and nothing changed, and I just ate my little something. Only Christopher Robin left for a moment. Owl says that immediately beyond our garden Time begins, and that it is an awfully deep well. If you fall in it, you go down and down, very quickly, and no one knows what happens to you next. I was a bit worried about Christopher Robin falling in, but he came back and then I asked him about the well. "Old bear," he answered. "I was in it and I was falling and I was changing as I fell. My legs became long, I was a big person, I grew old, hunched, and I walked with a cane, and then I died. It was probably just a dream, it was quite unreal. The only real thing was you, old bear, and our shared fun. Now I won't go anywhere, even if I'm called in for an afternoon snack."
'There is nothing that the mature hate more, there is nothing that disgusts them more, than immaturity' writes Gombrowicz in this comic masterpiece of...more'There is nothing that the mature hate more, there is nothing that disgusts them more, than immaturity' writes Gombrowicz in this comic masterpiece of Polish literature. Be prepared to embrace your immaturity as Gombrowicz attacks so-called 'maturity' and exposes it as a fraud in this story about an aspiring author who is reduced to back to his childish teenage self before a former professor and brought back to school. This first novel of his was banned by the Nazi's and Communist parties for it's stinging criticisms on society and authority. Gombrowicz toys with the absurbed as he delivers a hilarious blend of comedy, political and social satire, literature and psychological critique and the question of identity all while exposing man as an immature being.
While Gombrowicz is considered a major figure in Polish and Eastern European literature, and his first novel, Ferdydurke, is considered one of his foremost novels, it wasn't until the later stages of his career, however, that Gombrowicz's genius became widely recognized. A major factor of this is due to a fateful trip to Buenos Aires on the eve of WWII. Upon arrival, he discovered Hitler had invaded Poland and chose to remain abroad, working in a bank owned by another Polish expatriate, and did not return to Europe until the 60's.
The translation of this novel, as the introduction will pound into your head, attempted to maintain Gombrowicz style and nuances as best as possible. This includes using a variety of diminutives and not translating certain key phrases, including many of the Latin and french idioms that would have been intentionally left untranslated in it's native polish. This choice also gives us a great new word that you will use constantly, probably to the annoyance of others, after this novel: 'the pupa'. The pupa is a very encompassing word that most often literally means the butt. Yes, assess play a large part of this novel. There are hilarious bits of 'mommy's and aunties' peeping through holes in the fence around the playground to talk amongst each other about 'what cute little pupas, pupas, pupas our little darlings have!'. The pupa is used very freely, often times standing in for various ideas of immaturity and youth. This novel is teeming with immaturity symbolism, so keep a sharp eye out.
This novel is a perfect blend of high-brow and low-brow humor. It's as if Frasier and Monty Python got together for a social satire aimed at intellectuals. The novel is basically split into three parts, each with a break from the story for Gombrowicz to discuss literature and tell side-stories that offer further insight into the novel's themes.(the short story of The Child Runs Deep in Filidor would even be worth reading on it's own). There is the school scene, which pits cliques of schoolchildren against each other, creating a metaphor of Polish politics with different groups symbolizing various political parties. This section showcases children trying so desperately to hard to be tough and vulgar and 'adult' that they are simply 'innocent in their desire not to be innocent'. This brought to mind the poem 'Schoolchildren' by [Author: W.H. Auden], which I would highly recommend. The teachers are also shown through the lens of Gombrowicz as being just as juvenile and foolish as their students.
All institutions and values and ideas that would present themselves as 'above the common rabble' or 'mature' comes under fire from Gombrowicz's cutting critique. He dissects the 'modern family' with all their progressive ideas, making them into a laughable fraud of immature beings posturing as respectable. Cities and university's are mocked and belittled, relationships are made out as foolish, while peasants and especially lords get the biggest brunt of Gombrowicz's fist to the mouth of society. The last scenes of this novel are incredible and very Monty Python-esk in their absurbdity. Even the moon in the sky becomes a giant pupa shinning down on us all. You will want to call every nose a 'snoot' and every face, or more accurately, every identity, a 'mug' after reading this. The closing lines of the story are even a slap in the face to you the reader, and you will laugh and relish in your own humiliation.
As an author, Gombrowicz is cunning and deft and can manipulate words with the best of them. He has a brilliant, insightful mind and is eager to share it with the reader, managing to show off an assumed arrogance but while being more than inviting. His greatest skills are his grasp on the human psyche, and he manages to deconstruct human nature wonderfully. In scenes where the narrator is toying with the minds of others and creating a sense of unease, the reader will feel it too and Gombrowicz seemingly enjoys making the reader uncomfortable as he slowly tightens the screws of his psychological terrorisms. He laughs in the face of humanity, reducing anything beyond juvenile immaturity as merely posturing, 'a series of empty phrases and grimaces' and a false facade. His lecture on being an author offer some of the finest insights into falsity in art; he reflects that man too often just tries to create what others would enjoy and in the end we trap ourselves in 'an ocean of opinions, each one defining you within someone else, and creating you in another man's soul' all because 'man is profoundly dependent on the reflection of himself in another man's soul, be it even the soul of an idiot'. This is just scratching the surface of the full-frontal barrage of arguments Gombrowicz throws about. 'Let me conceive my own shape, let no one do it for me!' he bellows. This novel, wholly original, creates a Gombrowicz that you will enjoy through further novels. I feel he achieves this lofty goal.
This is one of the funniest novels I have ever read, and is a wonderful satire that will reveal itself further if you put a little work into it and research some of the many allusions. Also, the cover art is done by none other than Bruno Schulz, another incredible major figure of Polish literature. Oh and Ian, this is definitely Literary Comedy. Gombrowicz will insult everything you know, and you will love him all the more for it. From a human being one can only take shelter in the arms of another human being. From the pupa, however, there is absolutely no escape. A clear 5/5
Do yourself a massive favor and read Borges. He can deliver more plot and twists in 2-5 pages than many authors do in 300. Every page will blow your m...moreDo yourself a massive favor and read Borges. He can deliver more plot and twists in 2-5 pages than many authors do in 300. Every page will blow your mind as you loose yourself in the brilliant labyrinth of his words. Read it. Now.(less)
From the first sentence of Pynchon’s National Book Award winning novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, the Reader is transpl...more‘What is the real nature of control?’
From the first sentence of Pynchon’s National Book Award winning novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, the Reader is transplanted into a threatening world where death strikes first, the cause second. It is a world of frightening realism and comic absurdity, all fueled through drug induced hallucinations, paranoid ramblings, and psychological investigations that is not all that unlike our own reality once you remove yourself to view it from afar as if it were some painting in a gallery. This is the Zone, and Pynchon is your field guide through the wasteland of paranoids, preterits and pornographers. The novel is stylistically staggering and so carefully researched that the line between fact and fiction blurs and is not always easy to deduce. It is carefully plotted out with extreme precision, aligning the events with actual weather detail from the days played out and in keeping with a metaphoric representation of the zodiac signs through the passing months. While this novel can be demanding, it is also extremely rewarding for those who make it through this wild rocket ride of literature.
A first time Reader should be cautioned that Part 1 of this mammoth text is exceedingly difficult. Pynchon seemingly takes great joy in pummeling the Reader with a labyrinthine structure of characters and plot lines, each accruing through dramatic left turns in the narrative. The effect is pure disorientation, obfuscation and outright frustration. It feels just like spinning plates. It is, in a sense, Pynchon’s boot camp for the real war awaiting across minefields of prose; it is where he must break you down and reconstruct you as he sees fit. While the Reader must keep their head down and gut through, soaking up as much of the swirling stories as they can, Pynchon lays out the groundwork for the larger themes to come. Many of the ideas expressed early on won’t seem particularly meaningful, but by the end of the novel the Reader will realize it was all right there in their faces from the start. As characters will come and go like ghosts, with only minimal dimension and reference to them, the Reader will begin to realize that the coming tribulations are not there for the growth of the characters, but for the Reader themselves. The Reader must come out the other side changed in order for the novel to be a success. They must let go of their notions of story and plot, for Pynchon views even the smallest plot structure as comfort, they must let go, give in, and submit to Pynchon. He demands it, and he will fire off heady diatribes against your intellect with philosophy, theology, conspiracies and actual rocket science.
The novel takes off running once the gun sounds the start of Part 2 when, dropped from foggy London town, the Reader finds themselves in the Zone. Early on is a discussion of Pointsman and Mexico, Pointsman being crafted as the ultimate embodiment of Pavlov’s cause-and-effect conditioning and Mexico being considered as ‘the Antipointsman’.
’The young statistician is devoted to number and method, not table-rapping or wishful thinking. But in the domain of zero to one, not-something to something. Pointsman can only possess the zero and the one. He cannot, like Mexico, survive anyplace in between…. to Mexico belongs the domain between zero and one – the middle Pointsman has excluded from his persuasion – the probabilities.’
Much of this novel deals with these two major perspectives. Pynchon often establishes structure, the Pointsman method, merely to deconstruct it and show the faults that lie within. By showing two specific points, in this instance excluding those inbetween points, Pynchon is able to demonstrate moments of symmetry, which he will then reverse. Normally a rocket would be heard before it explodes in a ball of death, but with the V2, now we have the death before sound (reversals also play a large key to the novel, from the countdown before a launch, to hypnotic imagery of English explorers sailing backwards to home).
These two specific points are also expressed as binary differences, such as black and white, life and death, good and evil, preterition and the chosen few. These binaries are clear-cut sides, direct opposites of forces in keeping with the theory of entropy which rules the novel, sides that we clamor to reach in order to have a firm ground to stand on and a cut-and-dry vision of who is friend and who is foe. But Mexico, and Pynchon, rejects these binaries. Mexico acknowledges the space between zero and one, which is a wild, lawless no-man’s land (recall the McCarthy-esk western vision of Slothrops where there is one of everything – a endlessly compounding ‘one’ that creates an asymptote never actually reaching 1) where everything and anything is possible. It is a place more dream than reality, and the hallucinogenic nature of Pynchon’s spiraling prose and plots do well to express the ambiguities inherent in such a Zone. However, the novel never fully subscribes to one theory and can be interpreted as a cautionary tale for those who wander into this territory. Plot, laws and binaries are structures that keep our minds at ease and provide comfort and safety, so when we enter into the infinite freedom of the decimal we open ourselves to forces that may scatter us, kill us, and rub us out into oblivion.
Pynchon himself will try to scatter and thwart the Reader in consequence of stepping into his Zone. He acknowledges you are in his territory, and will speak as he chooses, often with what seems an intention of belittling your own intelligence. He only occasionally makes concessions to the reader when he realizes at least a slight bridge must be made in setting a scene such as saying ‘you will want cause and effect. All right’, which, considering the rejection of such an idea in this novel, serves to mock the reader for scrambling to grasp the reassuring ledge of the pool in this deep end he has thrown us. To swallow this novel on a first read, a reader must attack it somewhat like middle school mathematical story problems – find the important information in the bloated paragraph, divide and conquer. There is a plethora of information to choose from as he will offer a vast variety of the same symbols and metaphors (the S, for example, shows up as the SS, the shape of the bomb factory tunnels, people spooning, the symbol for entropy, etc. There is a death/life metaphor on practically every page) Yet, Pynchon seems hell-bent on keeping you on your toes and disoriented. He will allow the Reader to slide into a groove of strong forward velocity, and then deliver a scene so grotesquely funny or vilely disgusting to shock the readers mind and scatter their thoughts and perceptions from decoding this vast network of ideas and then tries to evade us in a web of looping plots, obtuse anecdotes and countless characters (some of which come and go with hundreds of pages between mention). The maze of a plot that must be navigated is acknowledged as being similar to the course of events Slothrop encounters on the way, which he compares to the MBTA: ‘by riding each branch the proper distance, knowing when to transfer, keeping some state of minimum grace though it might often look like he’s headed the wrong way, this network of all plots may yet carry him to freedom.’ There must be a sense of trust that eventually, if you keep gutting through, there will be a conclusion to satisfy a journey of such magnitude.
There is a constant paranoia overwhelming each printed word, a paranoia that the Reader must assimilate by proxy in order to fully appreciate the madness at hand. Yet paranoia itself must be a sort of comfort as well. While there is a fear of the Invisible Hand at play, pushing us through psychological nods in the right way, it is still a comfort that we are part of Their greater plan. For the preterits, this They is the only sense of God they will ever feel, as they are looked over by God himself. This whole novel is the interaction of such Preterits, from the fetishists to the colony of escaped concentration camp members, and the Reader must become a member of these second sheep as they must lose their selves along with Slothrop. The Reader is dragged through the mud and muck of a smattering of various theories, and to keep their sanity, they attempt to assign meaning to these elusive threads flashing about them in order to keep going. But perhaps this is just what Pynchon wants us to do, assigning Him the role of the They, and the Reader will begin to feel paranoid that this is all in jest, that Pynchon is simply pulling the world over their eyes and will begin to question even their own powers of deduction. We have learned that all that is comforting must be released (not yet knowing at these points in the novel that there is only a void awaiting with total freedom), and even the paranoid ponderings are only a comfort for us in Pynchon’s world.
If there is something comforting – religious, if you want, about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long. Well right now, Slothrop feels himself sliding onto the anti-paranoid part of his cycle, feels the whole city around him going back roofless, vulnerable, uncentered as he is, and only pasteboard images now of the Listening Enemy left between him and the wet sky’
First, note the reversals in this, then swoon at the powerful prose in the second half. Now, assign meaning to this quote – but Slap, no! – Pynchon says there is no meaning. But then feel yourself become transparent and weightless, fading into oblivion with no reference to the world around you. This is the ultimate dilemma we are faced with in the Zone.
It is no surprise the Reader is made to feel so paranoid in a novel rife with corporate conspiracy, much of which is highly researched and forms an impressive historical fiction aspect to this novel. If those rambling through the Zone are the preterits moved by the They, than these corporations are one of the highest tangible link to They we can see. They decide who lives and dies, who is rich and who is denied wealth, what we want to consume and how (‘consumers need to feel a sense of sin’) and exist in a realm where the War is simply a shuffling of power. ‘This war was never political at all, the politics was all theater, all just to keep the people distracted…secretly it was being dictated instead by the needs of technology….by a conspiracy between human beings and techniques’. Throughout the course of Gravity’s Rainbow, we have endless looks into mans thirst for technology, which in itself is a thirst for death based on the nature of the technology, even when it is also a life-giving force such as is the case of Pokler who had no life until the Rocket, and how this goes beyond the War itself. Even the White Visitation simply uses the War as a reason for more funding. Mans role in technology is at the heart of every idea in this book. Entropy is a measuring stick which this novel employs (in a book that sets out to dissolve all rules, having a rule that is upheld highlights its importance), and all events and ideas serve to counterbalance each other in keeping with the conservation of energy with the preterits being the heat burned off. As a quick aside, if I may, many of these preterits, Mexico and Jessica’s romance or the concentration camp members (‘their liberation was a banishment’) for example, are directly tied to the war and a become casualty of peace – the budding romance (there are some tearjerker lines, Pynchon really shows his soft side with them) being the ‘waste heat’ in a chemical reaction. They Rockets, being the focal point of the book, are both life and death images as well as phallic metaphors while many of the phalluses are rocket metaphors. Film plays another large role, with much of the book containing constant allusion to pop culture similar to a Quentin Tarantino film, and Der Springer believes he can reshape reality through film.
This struggle of life and death is something that must be embraced as two parts of a whole in this novel, much like man and machine become one with Gottfried and the 00000 Rocket. Life and death are found strung together all throughout the novel, yet, as critic Harold Bloom points out in his essays on Rainbow, in Pynchon's book so focused on the idea of Death, the Reader never actually experiences or witnesses one - not one in all of the 800 pages. Many deaths are spoken of, some ambiguous like Tantivity’s, and others referred to plainly such as Pudding’s (note that ‘shit’ is spoken of as a metaphor for death, ‘shit is the presence of death’, and he is made to ingest it during – for him, not us – a sexual peak as another way life and death bind together in the novel), but the camera of the prose, if you will, always cuts right before the Reader must be an active participant in the death. Like Gottfried again, we know he dies, but because the com-link is only one way, we never can know the precise moment. Even Peter’s clubbing to the head cuts before the club can land. In this way, the novel is shown actually as a celebration of life, all the moments moving from 1:life to 0:death but never getting to the zero. We are forever in the Zone, for better or for worse. But with the final words of the novel, nay, the final two words, he pulls us from oblivion back to the whole. We escape death by existing in the moments between 1 and 0, and, ironically, in a book bent on annihilating structure and group alignment, he calls us all back into one large group: humanity.
Gravity’s Rainbow is a massive novel that takes quite a bit of decoding and deboning in order to devour. But this is precisely what Pynchon wants and requires of us. This is a book that more or less requires a second reading just to grasp all that it has to say, the first is just a test of survival. The agglomeration of ideas are too much to chew and savor on one trip, and there is so much ambiguity present that, like Joyce’s Ulysses, he intends to scholars to dissect and analyze this novel for years and years to come. In the novel, the Zone members gather to become Kabbalists of the Rocket, ‘to be scholar-magicians of the Zone, with somewhere in it a Text, to be picked to pieces, annotated, explicated, and masturbated till it’s all squeezed limp of its last drop’. This book is Pynchon’s Rocket, ‘our Torah…our darkness’, which he cast forth into the 1970’s literary scene as a harbinger of destruction to all preconceived notions of literature. Pynchon in this way is not all that unlike the Rocket launchers, hidden far away out of sight in his reclusiveness, avoiding photographic surveillance, sending his Rocket into a brave new world. We, the Readers, are Gottfried strapped inside with ‘fire beneath our feet’ as Pynchon, as Blicero, hurls us forth into the irreversible future.
'Each bird has his branch now, and each one is the Zone'
I would also HIGHLY recommend the A Gravity's Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon's Novel to any readers of this novel. It was a huge help, especially with the pop culture allusions. Just be wary that it does occasionally give away plot elements and devices, sometimes long before they appear in the novel, and will practically double your time reading the actual book because there is so much information.
Also, I have to thank Stephen M's wonderful group read for inspiring me to read the book, while doubling as a support group to get us all through this tome! The discussions and links there are extremely helpful and insightful.