Absolutely hysterical. After being a bit disappointed with "Carry On, Jeeves," I was pleasantly surprised with "Right Ho, Jeeves." Bertie Wooster and...moreAbsolutely hysterical. After being a bit disappointed with "Carry On, Jeeves," I was pleasantly surprised with "Right Ho, Jeeves." Bertie Wooster and Jeeves remain firmly as my most beloved literary characters
While the Jeeves Stories are typically quite formulaic (darling Bertie Wooster getting himself 'in the soup,' ensuing chaos, and the inevitable brilliant resolution by Jeeves), Wodehouse is a master of true English humor. Both the outright and subtle humor of his writing makes all Wodehouse writes a multi-faceted comedy. Really brilliant.
Unlike other books available (for the Jeeves stories), this is basically a novel. ("Carry On, Jeeves," "The Inimitable Jeeves," "Thank You, Jeeves," etc are collections short stories).
Consistently hilarious; very much a demonstration of Wodehouse in his top form. (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)
I first read Under the Banner of Heaven in 2006, and revisited it in mid-2014; both times, I was captivated. It is, in turns, a history of the Latter-...moreI first read Under the Banner of Heaven in 2006, and revisited it in mid-2014; both times, I was captivated. It is, in turns, a history of the Latter-Day Saints, a documentation of a grisly murder, an exposee of the FLDS-sanctioned sex trafficking of young women, and an analysis of contemporary fundamentalism. On a grand scale, Under the Banner of Heaven makes inquiry into the relationship with the divine among religious laity -- and the effects on reality and personal responsibility those encounters have. Jon Krakauer is driven by the desire to understand human motivation in relationship to the great subjects of purpose, morality, divinity, and meaning. He is able to synthesize and present the most complex of human drives, with particular talent for the depth and variety of human self-destruction. His oeuvre in uniform in the thematic examination of a tragic hero: an individual or group driven to immolate themselves in their passion in a desperate (and often fatal) bid for meaning.
The search for meaning is, in Krakauer’s universe, exclusively linked to deriving purpose by the yoking of one’s identity to a larger, monolithic (and often transcendent) ideology. His other works emphasize humanity at the extremes – either during the ascent of Everest (Into Thin Air) or Chris McCandless’ naive and Romantic fatal venture in Alaskan wilderness (Into the Wild) – individuals that rely on danger and extremes for affirmation. His compassionate, nuanced portrait of Pat Tillman (Where Men Win Glory) stressed the complexity and quiet dignity of Tillman’s personality, while damning the military’s treatment and subsequent obfuscation of his death. Krakauer is no stranger to the extremes of human nature, and the driving motivations behind destructive achievements.
When published, Under the Banner of Heaven caused intense agitation within the Mormon Church and prompted official statements from LDS leadership. The response was with good reason: the book is a candid (and often unflattering) examination of the Latter-Day Saints, the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, and its successive prophets and leaders – all against the backdrop of a murder, committed as a result of personal divine revelation. The church history and belief system is used, throughout the book, to build a successive, methodical argument for its cultivation of blind subservience – to both LDS leadership and divine revelation. To suppose that the mainstream Mormon Church is bereft of the fanaticism, violence, manipulation, and depravity present in the fundamentalist movement is short-sighted: it becomes a matter of degree rather than presence.
There’s a vast distinction between an author’s agenda and the reasonable conclusions to be drawn from presented facts and analysis. Krakauer is conscientious in avoiding selectively presenting (and omitting) information towards a calculated end: it is the reader’s responsibility to discern the morality of the religious institution based upon its cohesive social and theological history. It’s the LDS and FLDS movements that have created, by their own hands, an overwhelmingly deleterious and damning legacy; to shine light on historical behaviors isn't vindictive, but of reasonable and considered analysis.
The troubling history of polygamy, just part of the LDS and FLDS' unsavory treatment of women, is explored in painful detail: Krakauer interviews women, forced at very young ages into plural marriages, about their experiences. The interviews demonstrate a pervasive forced subservience among women (to their husbands and other male community leaders); the indoctrinated trait perhaps most exemplified in the kidnapping and keeping of Elizabeth Smart by a self-proclaimed Mormon prophet. The Church of Latter-Day Saints, of course, espoused (and continues to champion) policies of gross racism, misogyny, and homophobia – but couches them firmly into church theology and doctrine, a useful tactic for absolving oneself of personal responsibility for decidedly anti-human policy. Mormonism, and its constituent members, are ill-equipped (and unwilling) to address the toxic and regressive policies ; instead relying on an unwavering support and deference to Smith’s channeled religious screeds.
(An aside: It should, too, be noted that Smith (a convicted huckster and charlatan) spent many years of his life dabbling in the occult, including the flavors of spiritualism popular in the mid-late 19th century America. He claimed to have his prophecies guided by the angel Moroni, and used a pair of magical spectacles (and a collection of mysteriously – and conveniently-- gone-missing plates) he found in upstate New York. To suppose Joseph Smith, as a religious leader and businessman, was anything less than an impassioned blowhard using the buttress of religion to further his own purposes (whether multiple wives, political influence, or an engorged bank account) is – at best—naïve, at worst – willfully ignorant.)
The reliance and support for individual revelation in Mormonism and among fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints -- is a central focus of the book. Schismatic movements, divergent from Joseph Smith’s ongoing revelatory experiences and proclamations, are created and supported by the experience of revelation among the LDS faithful. The principle of plural marriage (polygamy) becomes a central issue in the evolution of Mormonism, and the dividing point between the LDS and Fundamentalist movements. It’s made clear, both in Krakauer’s work and elsewhere, that the LDS abandonment of polygamy is political in nature; a way of mainstreaming the church and enabling it to hold greater sway. When the decrees of Joseph Smith interfere with social and cultural control, they may (conveniently) be adjusted and swept away. The adjustments are made out of pure self-interest, to place the LDS church in the most advantageous and powerful position possible.
The oppositional forces of ‘reason’ and ‘faith’ provide the framework upon which Krakauer constructs his assessments about the environment, culture, and indoctrination that ultimately culminated in the murder of Brenda Lafferty and her young child. Moreover, Krakauer uses the microcosm of the Mormon Church (and its various fundamentalist sects) to explore essential questions of faith and belief (particularly evident in the murky depths of fanaticism and orthodoxy) – inquiries that extend far outside the Mormon realm. He interviews Dan and Ron Lafferty, the two brothers who committed the murders, and is shaken by their unwavering faith in the truth of their revelations: Dan remains lucid and rationally aware of his crime, but steadfast in his conviction that he was acting under the orders of God.
Under the Banner of Heaven deftly navigates the dark repercussions of religious faith. Krakauer empathizes with the victims he encounters – whether Brenda Lafferty and her newborn, or the child brides shuttled between FLDS communities – and humanely addresses the over-arching consequences of an institution demanding absolute obedience and uniform thought. It is an important study in Mormonism (at large) and the social and cultural effects of Latter-Day Saint theology and policy. (less)
Theodor Adorno, in an oft-misappropriated quote, wrote that to compose poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism. Adorno did not, as it may initially seem,...more Theodor Adorno, in an oft-misappropriated quote, wrote that to compose poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism. Adorno did not, as it may initially seem, intend the Holocaust to signify the end of cultural creativity. Rather, it’s a remark that – against the broader critical landscape – inquires about reconciling a culture that produced Kant and Beethoven with the largest, most extensive, systematized killing in humanity’s history. There is a “tension between ethics and aesthetics inherent in an act of artistic production that reproduces the cultural values of the society that generated the Holocaust”; a tension that must be navigated by any writer or artist broaching the subject (“The Ethical Limitations of Holocaust Literary Representation,” A. Richardson, eSharp Issue 5 – Borders and Boundaries. D.M. Thomas, as author of The White Hotel (and instigator of the voluminous ensuing literary discussion) sensitively and adroitly writes a ‘Holocaust novel’ without falling prey to the compulsion to make the novel a parable or story of redemption.
(And it is this, the avoidance of ‘the redemptive power of suffering’ or ‘suffering as purpose’ that makes The White Hotel an essentially Jewish novel: it avoids the Christian teleology present in so much Holocaust literature).
To suppose the Holocaust should only be approached as abstraction is not a new idea. Direct literary narrative can’t examine the ‘silence of God,’ the vicious anti-human violence; non-fiction accounts, too often, reduce the subject to little more than tally marks and quotes about ‘The Jewish Problem.’ The literary world is rife with Holocaust narratives: they have been turned into commodities, the shock and horror (and sturm und drang!) has long given way to cautionary tales about hatred and brutality. The White Hotel subverts the common conception of Holocaust literature: it is, in parts, erotic poetry, epistolary exchange, narrative, historical document, and hallucination.
The psychotherapy sessions between Freud and the protagonist, Lisa Erdman, are used as infrastructure for Lisa’s third-person narrative. Freud is an enabling device and mouthpiece – certainly anyone, with even a modicum of experience with Freudian thought and analysis, would recognize Lisa’s symptoms (pains in her breast and pelvis, sexual hysteria and hallucination, and the transformative role of her mother’s sexuality) as Freudian in nature. Lisa authors a stream-of-consciousness poem, and further clarifies it (at the urging of Dr. Freud) into a fantastical, sexual, violent vignette.
From the 21st century, we know the inevitability of Eastern European Jewry in the 1930s and 40s; the herding of Jews to destruction in Poland, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia. The infernal drumming of the Holocaust is in the distance, with oblique reference to political and social unrest at different periods throughout the novel.
The novel abruptly drops us from Lisa’s dreamlike, comfortable (though frequently anguished) quotidian life to life during the war – bereft of the luxury she had prior – living in Kiev, Ukraine, poor and raising her son, Kolya. They are summoned – with the rest of the city’s Jewish population – to the riverside ravine, told they will be boarding trains (to camps, to Palestine, the furor of rumors overtake and transfix the evacuated Jews.
Of course, Sigmund Freud’s theories cast a long shadow over the twentieth century: the emergence of psychoanalysis, in conjunction with his extensive writing on behavior and nature, make him a prime lens and focusing agent on the events of the Holocaust and World Wars. He also, at times, cheapens the novel (though Thomas is good at keeping Freud as a device, rather than as a character); surely, the narratives and experiences would work as well without him, and Lisa’s ‘hysteria’ and psychosexual pain would be just as meaningful without the Freudian framing. (Indeed, her symptoms manifest obliquely – and directly – enough to draw the careful reader into the presumption of some kind of Freudian situation). The Freudian life and death instinct are two oppositional, harmonic forces that bookend the novel and the experiences of Lisa, the protagonist.
With Lisa’s ongoing breast and pelvic pain, her hallucinations and emotional preoccupations, her unreliable narration is assumed. How much can we trust her recollections? At what juncture, if any, do her preoccupations become surrogates for ‘real’ (as in, historically documented, agreed-upon) events? Leslie Epstein’s review, “A Novel of Neurosis and History” (New York Times, March 15, 1981), notes that Lisa is bereft of intellectual vigor and depth: she exists in a time, and circumstance, that would seem to court cultural exploration. And yet, in her narratives (both epistolary and third-person), she remains without intellectual identity and interaction.
At Babi Yar, Lisa – wearing her crucifix – is shot at, yet still alive in the mass burial pit. A German soldier spies her jewelry and pulls it off her neck, realizing she is still breathing: he smashes her breast and pelvis beneath his boots. Two soldiers, later discovering a flicker of life, subsequently rape her with a bayonet: a grisly, spare, and barbaric scene that finally frees her from life. And then, her experiences – her pains, her hysteria – acutely, rapidly focus: Lisa’s “Cassandra-like” premonitions and foresight, referenced throughout the novel, also predict her fate. Her ‘hysteria,’ then, isn’t manifested from past experiences – but the result of her future encounter with brutal soldiers, committing brutal violence, in a catastrophically brutal time. (Surely, too, with Freud and Lisa’s acknowledgement of foresight, this would explain the number of women experiencing hysteria some years prior to the Holocaust).
Extensive literary scholarship and criticism exists on The White Hotel, and with good reason: it is an unusual, phenomenal, profoundly moving piece of fiction, alone in its form and presentation. One of the most common criticisms leveraged against the novel addresses Lisa’s competing identities, her femininity and her Jewishness. There are protracted commentaries about which identity – the feminine or Jewish – subsumes the other. We are forced to confront, then, the nature of Jewish identity: Lisa is hardly living a remote, rural life on the shtetl in the Pale, she is a secular, cosmopolitan woman – the product of an interfaith marriage and a trained opera performer. Her Jewish identity hinges on her encounters with anti-Semitism; her Judaism is an abstraction, not a theological or cultural touchstone, and one she is forced to confront at Babi Yar.
Like many Jews, she exhibits a complicated (and even denialist) relationship to Judaism: she wears a crucifix, and – upon showing her gentile surname and paperwork to a German soldier -- is given the opportunity to escape the murdering. She remains, though, as Kolya (her son) cannot leave – and she is, ultimately, subsumed into the inevitable, inescapable fate of European Jews. She has internalized anti-Semitism, from her father, from a group of harassing sailors in her youth, from her estranged husband.
Discourse on The White Hotel means accepting a non-binary version of identity, motivation, and experience; that differences in ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ exist, and the distinctions between the two aren’t particularly important – especially not within the abstract narrative. A compulsion to reconcile the ambiguities and fluidity of the novel – with all varieties of reality into one, holistic experience, denies the novel’s very nature. The expectation of realism to succeed abstraction is short-sighted and contradicts the essential nature of conceptual fiction. (less)