Pushkin, of course, is the master of Russian literature. While Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc, are more well-recognized in the West as 'seminal figures' of...morePushkin, of course, is the master of Russian literature. While Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc, are more well-recognized in the West as 'seminal figures' of Russian literature, it is Pushkin who truly embodies Russian storytelling.
The translation of "The Captain's Daughter" (a novella, 140 pp) was excellent. Were this collection rated on the novella alone, it would easily get five stars.
However, the rest of the stories in the collection (about another 150 pp) suffered, unfortunately, from stilted and occasionally confused translating. A shame, too, because Pushkin's stories are really meant to be simple and easily understood.
Much like a Russian O. Henry, Pushkin generally thrives on the ironic. His storytelling is spartan: only the most basic details are provided, but each story is heartfelt, simple, and quite beautiful.
There is a strong selection of stories in this collection, and overall, the storytelling is very good. The translation could be improved, but is fairly readable; it's a shame that the translation can bog down the flow of Pushkin's stories.(less)
In finishing the novella, I remain wholly unenthusiastic about its premise and conclusion. The characters were adequately developed: Gillian, Andre, a...moreIn finishing the novella, I remain wholly unenthusiastic about its premise and conclusion. The characters were adequately developed: Gillian, Andre, and Dorcas made the [un?] holy trinity of main characters. The peripheral, secondary characters seemed heavy handed: Sybil? Marisa? ...They seemed written in as part of another story line that was never quite developed or integrated.
It's incidental to me that while the book takes place at a women's college, ostensibly among close friends, each action and behavior seemed totally encapsulated in the individual character. There is little non-superficial interaction between anyone, excite for Gillian's insipid fawning. Maybe that was the point, that each individual is completely isolated from one another ... but were that the intention, I remain even less impressed with this work.
I expected the book to fit more into the tradition of being John Fowles-esque, insofar as the character becomes very much a victim of others behaviors. For me, the main problem was that there wasn't enough struggle, there wasn't' enough conflict internalized by the characters. (less)
It is difficult, with a moat of sixty years and an intellectual barricade of countless other World War II and Holocaust-related reading, to adequately...moreIt is difficult, with a moat of sixty years and an intellectual barricade of countless other World War II and Holocaust-related reading, to adequately begin to review this collection of short stories from Tadeusz Borowski. Falling back into the same reiteration of virtually all Holocaust/post-war writings is almost too easy: "This book serves as a reminder of the atrocities of war ...", "this book demonstrates how terrible man can be..." etc, etc, ad infinitum. Ad nauseum. The sorts of blanket recognitions and statements about Holocaust writing do not, in general, do either post-war mentalities, nor the atrocities of the event, justice: they provide an automated recognition of the war, but without truly instigating thought, consideration, and insight of what actually happened.
In many respects, This Way for the Gas ... establishes itself as a remarkably unique piece of post-war Holocaust writing. While Borowski himself was a kapo in Auschwitz, his experience there was vastly different from many others who passed through the camp. His lifestyle was comparatively luxuriant: he was afforded packages from home, 'organised' (stolen) goods from around the camp, and generally held a position of relatively power over the fellow inmates. Because he was a Pole (rather than a Jew or a Russian), Borowski possessed a substantial advantage over many of the most barbaric treatments at Auschwitz. Additionally, being selected as a kapo forced his participation in many of the very atrocities ocurring at Auschwitz: Borowski was likely feared and despised by many of the inmates under him in the camp's hierarchy.
The writing is terse, resigned, and strikingly detached. Concurrently with This Way for the Gas ..., I was reading 'Auschwitz' (by L. Rees). In this latter book, Rees stipulates that how many concentration camp workers managed to survive, despite the crushing mental and physical burdens, was in effectively detaching oneself from the surroundings. The behavior of detaching oneself from ones' environment is exemplified throughout 'This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.' Borowski himself creates a mental barricade between himself and his surroundings; in one scene he discusses playing keeper during a football game with other inmates. Between one out-of-bounds and a second, he sees a trainload (approximately five thousand) of people sorted, selected, and gassed only a few hundred meters from where he is playing.
The frankness (and, to us, callousness - though at the time, such responses were likely appropriate and acceptable given the circumstance) of the prose makes Borowski's works difficult to read. Inevitably, there is the comparison to Wiesel's 'Night' (another magnificent piece of writing), but the similarities, outside of being narratives of concentration camp survivors, are few. While Wiesel's writing is humane, gutwrenching, and almost impossibly difficult to read, Borowski's is so lacking of humanity, warmth, and compassion that it's nearly more difficult to read than Wiesel's writing. Borowski doesn't seem to be completely devoid of humanity, but the demonstrated acceptance of the conditions around him do not provide as distinct a demarcation as Wiesel's writings: inmates are not consistently helpless victims, nor are SS guards always the most brutal of characters.
Borowski's writing remains one of the most complex pieces I have ever read. There are many levels to what he has written, and his reflections and thoughts are inconsistent with their acceptance and understanding of his environment. Like much else written during the time, he ultimately is an individual trying desperately to cope with a decidedly inhuman, catastrophic situation as best he can. (less)
The premise is very interesting: a young women decides that her standards for dating are too high (and thusly leading to her overall unhappiness and l...moreThe premise is very interesting: a young women decides that her standards for dating are too high (and thusly leading to her overall unhappiness and lack of love). She decides that, for a year, she will abandon all of her ideals and simply say 'yes' to every man (and woman!) who asks her out.
The problem with the books premise is, of course, a sort-of catch-22. In one sense, The Year of Yes is empowering to read as a single woman: to see another woman throw caution to the wind for love and happiness. In many ways, the book is essentially a celebration of 'singledom,' a way to let loose and disregard social expectations and simply date. However, the book also drives home precisely the message it tries to initially eschew: one can only be happy when 'paired' with another, in the most socially conservative of ways (monogamous, heterosexual, etc, etc).
Of course, the ending is predictable - and the author learns from her experience, grows as a person, finds true love, blah blah blah. By the time I was halfway through, her humor and charm had become stale (I mean really, how many Rilke jokes can you make? How much more can one drum-up their intellectual alienation? ...Puh-leeze), and most of the book read like a circuitous gossip rag. (less)
The main problem with this work is the confusing nature of the storyline. Weil clearly has the grandest of ambitions, and it is obvious that he is a c...moreThe main problem with this work is the confusing nature of the storyline. Weil clearly has the grandest of ambitions, and it is obvious that he is a capable, strong writer. The ideas for a remarkable story are certainly there, as is the character development - from the Jewish families, Nazi officials, and Czech citizens. The subtle nuances of each individual struggling to survive in Nazi-occupied Prague bring striking humanity to the most inhuman times; Weil manages to portray each individual character as complex, driven by myriad desires and emotions.
There are heavy allusions made towards certain members of the Nazi party - clearly Speer and Heydrich play substantial roles, though they are never really mentioned by name, only by behaviors, physical descriptions, and commentary on their positions in the Czechoslovakian Protectorate. The Czech characters are human, and trying to bump along and maintain their livelihood in light of the occupation.
In many ways, the complexities of the characters is reflective of contemporary postmodern literature. For a subject matter that is frequently a magnet for absolutist thought and behavior (one side being "all bad," the other side being "all good"), Weil deals thoughtfully and provocatively with the two 'sides' to the Nazi occupation. Neither side is portrayed absolutely: there are moments of kindness on both sides of the conflict. The complexity, however, can become an overriding theme in character development - a behavior not uncommon in 'Mendelssohn is on the Roof' - and prevents true character depth from developing throughout the story.
Some of my favorite writing of the book is included when one of the Nazi leaders (presumed, and heavily implied to be, Reinhardt Heydrich) thinks about the importation of German cultural behavior to Prague. The juxtaposition of his thoughts on Beethoven during the purges of the Nazi party members are remarkable, despite being basically absurd.
Weil's poetic descriptions of the beautiful city (which I have loved so well) are fitting and appropriate: they avoid heavy handedness, while still grasping at the deeply emotional connection many feel with the beauty, and cultural traditions of, Prague.
'Mendelssohn is on the Roof' becomes frustrating because clearly Weil has an excellent story idea. The Nazi occupation of Prague is not nearly as frequently discussed or explored through literature and history as many other aspects of World War II, so Weil successfully avoids cliche and triteness; he is able to bring a fresh outlook to a subject that has been, to some extent, overplayed and wrought with rigid intellectual and emotional behavior.
Weil is obviously confident in his ability to create a remarkable foundation for a story (he is extremely successful), but doesn't excercise control over how, precisely, to incorporate underlying themes and character leitmotifs to effectivelly *tell* the story.
Throughout the novel, it's evident that the author is straddling the line between trying to create a magical realist story (a la M. Kundera's tradition) and telling a linear, simple story of survival amongst Prague's residents. Either methodology would have worked equally well, but the indecision about literary methodology - which carries through to the end of the book - sporadically outshines the story's incredible potential as a masterpiece.
Overall, the work is quite excellent, but not without its flaws. Much like the characters of 'Mendelssohn is on the Roof,' the storytelling itself is courageously ambitious. However, Weil's storytelling wavers without a decisive literary behavior. (less)
Hannah Arendt wrote in her book 'Eichmann in Jerusalem' that our modern conception of evil is /banality/; the ubiquitousness of violence, degradation,...moreHannah Arendt wrote in her book 'Eichmann in Jerusalem' that our modern conception of evil is /banality/; the ubiquitousness of violence, degradation, and disrespect for human life is what roots humanity in evil. It is Arendt's version of evil that arises in Ledig's 'Stalin Front': the mechanization of death is the most insidious, and disturbing, part of the story.
There is much to be said for "The Stalin Front." Superficially, it is a war story between the Germans and the Russians (told, either notably or not, by a German) during the battle of Pedrova, a hill outside of Leningrad. Whether to be attributed to Hoffman's translation, or the ambiguity of Ledig's own writing, it is frequently difficult to discern about which side one is reading. With the exception of an occasional 'tovarische' or italicized German or Russian phrase, there is little allusion given to the particular 'sides' in the war.
The mutual hatred between the Russians and the Germans is evident to any student of history. Regardless, there is no politicising the war (and the clash of ideologies and governments). Much like Junger's 'Storm of Steel,' the various political components underpinning the war are virtually ignored in lieu of the focus upon the day-to-day survival of those engaged in the war. There are some small bits of compassion between the two sides, and throughout the story it is evidenced how much the larger the battle is than each individual soldier and officer engaged in it. The overwhelming bureaucracy prevents units on both the Russian and German side from making proper decisions, while units remain at the mercy of their (oft far-removed) commanding officers.
Inherently, there is an amount of violence to be expected of any book regarding war. Ledig's written violence is unequivocally one of the most severe and consuming that I have personally encountered in literature. Despite the incessant barrage of brutality, there are slivers of each character attempting to preserve whatever dignity he has left despite (or, perhaps, in spite of) the circumstances.
Hoffman's translation is clearly painstakingly completed: much of the idiomatic phrases and similes are translated (in closest approximation) to their English counterparts. Some of the writing is jilted, which is either Ledig's writing, or Hoffman's translating. The difficulty, of course, is that there are no other translations of 'The Stalin Front' available at present time, and one is left with Hoffman's by default. Much of the prose is really quite beautiful, but sporadically, some remarkably stilted line or paragraph ekes its way into the work.
Similar books to explore, of course, include other works involving generally apolitical war exploration. In using the term apolitical, there is the expectation that the book is, itself, not a political manifesto of some particular ideology or viewpoint. The book's theme itself may speak a philosophical, ethical, or moral view, though without espousing a pointedly political viewpoint. As such, Ernst Junger's 'Storm of Steel,' Dalton Trumbo's 'Johnny Got His Gun,' and (of course, the perennially recommended war favourite), Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front' are written in a similar vein. (less)