I can’t help but feel like a jackass for coming to the game so late. It has been over ten years since Civilwarland in Bad Decline was first publishedI can’t help but feel like a jackass for coming to the game so late. It has been over ten years since Civilwarland in Bad Decline was first published and introduced George Saunders to the literary world. As a guy who is constantly pounding the table about the value of short stories, I look a bit o’ the fool for having not read and known the value of Saunders’ debut collection. What a way to kick in the doors and make an entrance into the literary world.
Saunders is amazingly comfortable in his own skin -- he’s running with a great stride in these stories, carrying the reader along with him effortlessly. Nothing ever seems forced. Both Flannery O’Connor and Mavis Gallant had that same ability, and in many ways Saunders is as adept at writing stories that seemed to have been set down on earth and exist (you never feel as if you’re reading, you are a witness).
It is an American vision, albeit a twisted, dark, and tragicomic one. The world of Saunders’ stories is our America, but turned inside out, revealing our ugly insides. And that alone makes them a pleasure to read.
On the surface most of the tales in Civilwarland in Bad Decline focus around theme parks or attractions that at first seem absurd, but as you read into the story, don’t seem that implausible. The Civilwarland theme park of the title story is savaged by teenage gangs, has authentic civil-war era tormented souls, and a reconstructed Eerie Canal complete with a historically inaccurate smell of Chinese food. There is the water park sporting a “Leaping Trout Subroutine” for authenticity and a very deadly wave pool. Oh and the not-so-perfect holographic projection franchise and the not-so-on-the-level raccoon disposal business and a science museum that includes pickled babies and cows with plexiglass stomachs. I almost forgot to mention the medieval times theme park staffed by mutants. But nothing works, or at least not the way it should. The bird count in Civilwarland is off so they have to kill several hundred orioles. The plexiglass cows keep dying. The wave pool sucks small children into the turbines. The holograph devices can actually siphon a customer’s memories. It is a strange America that Saunders presents to us, but not so far-fetched. It is just our foibles and desires and sins amplified to comic effect. This is usually why most people cannot go three lines without mentioning Vonnegut when talking about Saunders’ stories.
But the superstructures that hold up all these stories are simple morality tales. Most, with the exception of “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror,” center around emasculated or down-trodden men having to face up to the consequences of their actions. It gives the stories their sadness and their hook. One moment you’re laughing at Saunders wit only to be sucker punched by the reality of a character’s situation. The narrator of the title story, discovering that his de facto security guard has taken his role a little too seriously upon capturing a teenage candy thief, is forced to bury a severed hand behind the theme park. As he digs, he’s confronted by the ghosts of the park -- a civil-war era family who really haven't gotten over the whole death thing -- launching the otherworldly collective into a Macbeth like hand wringing scene. It breaks your heart.
And that is what makes these stories works so perfectly. They break you down, even as they have you laughing out loud. The best story in the collection, “Isabelle,” is almost an odd-duck as it is a straight tale of small town life. But it destroys you. It lays you out flat on a slab. The prose is simple, precise, razor-sharp. In all good short story collections, there is always one piece that justifies the cost of the others. “Isabelle” is worth the price of the book alone.
The collection is not perfect. The final novella, “Bounty,” while entertaining in parts feels like an unneeded, over-extended exclamation point to the stories in front of it. If I had to guess, the publisher included it so as not to make the collection seem too short. And in some ways, the recurring themes can start to feel heavy-handed as you get four or five stories into the book. But Saunders always saves the day. His writing is so perfectly witty, sharp, and poignant, that you’re willing to drop the petty criticisms and follow the tale. That is a sign of great writing....more
I have to admit that I concur with Caleb Ross' review of Twenty Stories. Ms. Fouquet's tales grow on you, line-by-line, page-by-page, slowly creepingI have to admit that I concur with Caleb Ross' review of Twenty Stories. Ms. Fouquet's tales grow on you, line-by-line, page-by-page, slowly creeping under the skin, as you dig deeper into the collection. But perhaps that is the point. What else would you expect from a bunch of tales set in low and lazy New Orleans? If you've walked the streets, you know that nothing is rushed. Even redemption and remorse. So by the time you hit "Another Initiation" on page 6, then stumble upon "The Painters" on page 15, before catching "Boy in Waiting" on page 36, and then finally reaching "Blue No More" on page 43, you're hip deep in the sordid lives of the New Orleans locals.
I would call these tales postcards rather than traditional stories. Most are snapshots of lives not quite lived but misdirected. There are the not-so-usual missteps and miscalculations. Such as the main character's longing for a tough-loving lounge singer in "The Moon is New, But Love is Old." Or the painter who misjudges his landlord's appreciation of art in "The Painters." But in all these tales, Fouquet presents characters, people you already know. If you've ever spent time in the sweaty watering holes of the south, you recognize them as locals. They ring true of the landscape. Maybe that's why their trip-ups make for good reading....more
Sinclair Lewis' writing always sticks with me. Perhaps it is because he so wonderfully savaged American culture, laying out all its ills, prejudices,Sinclair Lewis' writing always sticks with me. Perhaps it is because he so wonderfully savaged American culture, laying out all its ills, prejudices, and hypocrisies as a feast for the reader. The characters he presented to us--Elmer Gantry, George Babbitt, Samuel Dodsworth, and Will Kennicott-- were bright smiling neighbors that revealed the grotesque in American values.
Of these Elmer Gantry, the title character of Lewis' 11th novel, still rings the most true, if for no other reason than that the tomfoolery Lewis witnessed in tent preachers has grown exponentially into the likes of Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Trinity Broadcasting, and the Christian Family coalition. In 1927, Lewis saw evangelical preachers as frauds, more hellbent on raising money and controlling their congregations than actually saving souls. The morality was suspect, a sales point. Lewis would have relished the arrival of a preacher like Creflo Dollar who insists business advice can be found in the bible.
It goes without saying that Lewis' work always had something to say, a larger social commentary that infuses all of his novels. But he was also one of America's best satirists. There are infinite moments of hilarity in Elmer Gantry in spite of the horror. The first line of the novel is a great example of his style:
"Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."
Or there is Elmer's rejection of Lulu Bains:
"Once or twice in his visions he had considered that there might be danger of having to marry her. He had determined that marriage now would cramp his advancement in the church and that, anyway, he didn't want to marry this brainless little fluffy chick, who would be of no help in impressing rich parishioners."
NPR recently featured a look back on the novel, which includes snippets from the Academy-Award-winning film adaptation starring Burt Lancaster. While it is not a purely faithful adaptation of the book, Lancaster is fantastic in the role as Gantry; exuding that strange mix of religious cheerleader, drunken thug, and linebacker for God.
While I would admit that Babbitt is my favorite work by Lewis, I find myself more often reflecting back on Elmer Gantry. I'm happy to say I actually own one of the original 1927 editions. For my money, no book is better at shining a spotlight on all the flaws of Evangelical Christianity and its influence on America....more
It is a testament to Simenon’s quirky way of crafting a novel that when reading The Strangers in the House, one finds the actual solving of the mysterIt is a testament to Simenon’s quirky way of crafting a novel that when reading The Strangers in the House, one finds the actual solving of the mystery as the least interesting part of the novel.
Simenon took an interesting approach to his novels to say the least. He would often start out by writing everything he knew about his main characters on the backs of envelopes. Simple things: where do they live, what do they do for a living, who is in their family. Case in point, Hector Loursat, the protagonist of The Strangers in the House. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Loursat is:
- An abandoned husband (his wife having left him for a lover 18 years ago) - A father (and not a very good one to his only daughter) - A slob (who walks about the house in his soiled smoking jacket) - A drunk (who goes through several bottles of burgundy a day) - And a recluse (who has not left the confines of his bedroom nee study in many years)
He is more a mole than a human being, burrowed into his hole never to be disturbed. When a gunshot is suddenly heard in his home at the beginning of the story, Loursat does not jump up, running from room to room in a panic. Instead, he sits there for a moment, wondering, pondering. Like a man woken from a deep slumber, Loursat finally gets up to find out exactly what happened. Simenon -- in perfectly crafted prose, not an extra bit of fat or superfluous description -- captures the moment of discovery when Loursat first hears the sound of a gunshot.
At first he thought of the crack of a whip, a common enough sound to hear in the early morning when the garbage-men went on their rounds.
But this noise hadn’t come from outside. Nor was it the crack of a whip. There was more weight in it than that, more percussion, so much so that he had felt a slight shock in his chest before his ears actually heard it.
As he looked up, listening, the expression on his face was one of slight annoyance at the intrusion. It might have been taken for anxiety, but it wasn’t that.
What was so impressive was the silence that followed. A silence more compact, more positive than any ordinary one, but which yet seemed full of strained vibrations.
He didn’t get up from his chair at once. He filled his glass, emptied it, put his cigarette back in his mouth, then heaved himself up and went over to the door, where he listened for a second before opening it.
That description of the silence is so taut and perfect that it carries you out of the room, taking you all the way upstairs to the mysterious location of the gun shot. You are no longer standing with Loursat. Instead you are in the room, hearing the echo of the gun, standing with all parties involved, caught up in that tense moment of aftershock, when everyone is still can’t believe what has just happened. Then Simenon takes you back downstairs, back to Loursat, to share his disbelief in the sound he just heard.
Loursat does make his way upstairs to discover that a strange man has been murdered in his home and his own daughter may be caught up in the affair. This moment is where Loursat begins to wake up. In the ensuing chapters, as Loursat tries to piece together the events of that fateful evening, we care less about who or who didn’t commit the crime and instead are more concerned with the protagonist’s return to life. Loursat dragged further into the case, ventures outside -- horror of horrors -- then starts talking to people, then begins to become a social being, even beginning to have his wine in a local bar. Along the way, he discovers that he didn’t know his daughter as well as he had thought. And he comes to see the effect of his soiled reclusiveness on the Loursat household.
Like Kees Popinga in The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (one of Simenon’s best suspense novels), we see the story through the eyes of the central character. We live in Loursat’s head, at first as crowded and stuffy as his overheated lair. But as Loursat delves further in he investigation, that space is aired out (both the study and the brain) and the reader becomes increasingly caught up in his return to humanity. In some ways, the ensuing investigation and trial is very pedestrian, almost clichéd. The whodunit aspects of the novel are almost superfluous. Simenon’s superb ability to bring us into Loursat’s experience (as he did with Kees Popinga), drags the reader into the novel, and in the end, it is the trial of Loursat, the testing of his will, that makes the novel so interesting.
What a way to finish up my tour of the great Japanese writers of the 20th century. It’s not often you can call a writer brave. Generally it’s reservedWhat a way to finish up my tour of the great Japanese writers of the 20th century. It’s not often you can call a writer brave. Generally it’s reserved for writers who risked their own lives for their art. Alexander Solzhenitsyn would be a good example. But as I read the tales in Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, I could only stand in awe at how brave Kenzaburō Ōe was as a storyteller.
Take the opening tale, “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears.” It is told entirely from the prospective of an unnamed narrator, who spends his days in a hospital bed, dying from liver cancer, wearing thick underwater goggles covered in cellophane, dictating the story of his youth to a constantly interrupting stenographer who continually questions the motives of the narrator, the veracity of his account, and whether or not he truly has cancer (something the doctors dispute). The reader spends the entire story in the twisted headspace of the narrator, looped into his madness, as he recounts the tale of his sickly dying father accompanying a band of insurrectionists on a mission to restore Japan’s honor. As with his delusions of sickness, the narrator’s story of the insurrection is somewhat distorted, as if the cellophane over his goggles have changed his perception of days past. It is only the arrival of a third party later in the story that we learn the truth. Written as an angry parody in reaction to his friend Yukio Mishima’s grandiose suicide by hara-kiri, “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears” explores one’s inability to escape the myth and identity of the past. The overall narrative is inventive and challenging for the reader, but the power of Ōe’s writing carries it through.
Carrying through that theme of lost innocence and having one’s eyes ripped open to reality is the second story, “Prize Stock.” A black U.S. soldier is captured in a remote Japanese village during World War II. Kept in a dark dungeon, the soldier is viewed as a domestic animal by the local children including the narrator. Slowly, the soldier becomes more integrated into their daily lives, an important part of that particular summer of their youth. But when the local authorities decide to turn the soldier over to the prefecture, the children cannot abide the loss. This unleashes an ugly outcome that ends all innocence for the children. The story, grim and ugly in its portrayal of humanity, leaves one in awe, speechless at the gut punch it delivers.
Equally adept at skewering himself, Ōe parodied his own life in the title story and “Aghwee the Sky Monster.” Ōe’s son, who he called “Pooh,” was born with brain damage. In many ways, the child forced Ōe to isolate himself from the rest of the world, both physically and emotionally. In the two lead characters of these stories, we find that same isolation, two fathers whose sons of have caused them to be misfits in society. The title story, in spite of its sadness is quite funny, including the horror show of doctors and nurses attempting to perform and eye exam on the child (named “Eeyore” by his father). But it is also sweet in its portrayal of the bond that forms between the father and son, an enjoyed co-isolation from the world. “Aghwee the Sky Monster” has an eerie sheen to it, rendered mostly in the lead character’s schizophrenia and guilt from a planned infanticide. In the end, there is redemption, but it comes with a steep price.
In all these stories, Ōe puts his characters through the wringer. Redemption is hard-won. Innocence and identity are fleeting myths. And his portrayal of humanity’s ugliness is rendered beautifully....more
I found a really interesting edition of Wonderful Fool from the 1970s while travelling in Buenos Aires. Apparently this was an English-language versioI found a really interesting edition of Wonderful Fool from the 1970s while travelling in Buenos Aires. Apparently this was an English-language version for gaijin living or travelling in Japan. I have actually had some trouble finding the cover on the web, but this photo will give you some sense of very cool minimalist design. Interestingly, I found an old note written in Japanese as a bookmark between a few pages. http://instagram.com/p/V6dXH2I7BG/
As for the book itself there are some great qualities to the story. It feels like a lesser novel compared to Endō's masterpiece, Silence. I kept feeling that this could be a better novel if Endō ditched the brother and sister characters who feel almost campy and too much like cardboard cutouts for the youth of Japan (or at least the youth Endō's time). The core of the book that grabs the reader is the christ-like character Gaston's, a French gaijin completely out of his element in Japan, struggle to prevent the hired-killer Endo from committing a series of murders (interesting how the author gave the killer his own name). Afflicted with tuberculosis, Endo is hellbent on seeking revenge on the men who wronged his brother during the war. Gaston, naive and hapless, is at a disadvantage with his unwavering belief in human decency. Dragged through the underbelly of post-war Japan, he is kidnapped by Endo, and a war of wills ensues. The author wraps what essentially is a noir in the cloak of a morality tale. Endō, the author, wondered if Japan had any soul left or if its people had become cold to one another in the decades after World War II. Amazingly, Endō doesn't offer a definitive answer and even believed himself a fool for hoping that human decency would prevail. As the sister Tomoe describes Gaston:
"A man who loves others with open-hearted simplicity, who trusts others, no matter who they are, even if he is deceived or even betrayed -- such a man in the present-day world is bound to be written off as a fool."
Or in Endō's eyes, Christ would have been no match for Japan of that time.
The three star rating really comes down to Endō's choice to include the characters Takamori and his sister Tomoe. They feel out of place and unneeded. They are a device, a reason for Gaston to show up in Japan. But I almost feel it would have been a better novel if Gaston just appeared with no apparent reason for being there. Rather than having a teen movie layered throughout the novel.
Still Endō's writing is superb and I still think this is a worthwhile read, as well as a necessary part of his trio of novels that includes The Sea and Poison and Silence....more
The subtitle of Dirty Snow should have been, Take That Camus! While not a specific counter-punch to Camus’ L’Étranger, Simenon’s dark story of a murdeThe subtitle of Dirty Snow should have been, Take That Camus! While not a specific counter-punch to Camus’ L’Étranger, Simenon’s dark story of a murderer with no regrets shares a similar bent, neither pulling any punches with the reader. Maybe that is why the book, along with Simenon’s The Widow, which was published in the 40s as well, is so often compared to Camus first masterwork. While L’Étranger is infused with Camus’ humanistic worldview and the influences of his Algerian upbringing, Dirty Snow one-ups the score with Simenon’s cold remove and stripping of existential underpinnings. There is no philosophy to be had here — the world is an ugly place and that’s the short of it.
To call Dirty Snow bleak would be an understatement. It makes Simenon’s own The Man Who Watched Trains Go By read like a Sophie Kinsella novel. You leave this book covered in a disgusting film of human degradation (and yet somehow, all credit to Simenon, eagerly along for the ride). This is a testament to Simenon’s skill at trapping us in the head of man we detest, unable to look away as he drags us through one vile act to the next. There is no letup. We are never given leave of his gaze, never allowed a moment to gasp for clean air. And when the tables are finally turned on this horrible creature, we see the downfall through the antagonist’s eyes, causing our perception of him to change.
Set in an unnamed country occupied by an unnamed aggressor post an unspecific war, the book introduces us to one Frank Friedmaier, a young man who would like nothing more than to make his mark by murdering one of his fellow human beings. And down the toilet of human emotions we go. Frank is in some ways the definitive Simenon antagonist and we’re stuck with him, because there is no protagonist for readers to cheer on. A thug and a petty thief, he is cold, self-centered, childish, and hell-bent on being the black hole in the lives of anyone he comes into contact with. From the moment in the opening chapter where he jams a blade into an officer from the occupying forces, there is no turning back. Having lost his “virginity,” Frank is unleashed. His ego inflates, leading to more emotionless acts of cruelty that he inflicts on anyone in his path.
Simenon’ genius — and what ultimately sets Dirty Snow above L’Étranger in my eyes — comes in the final third of the novel. It was only a matter of time before Frank butted heads with the occupying forces. And here we discover who the true bad guys are. That scumbag Frank, who we’ve grown to hate in the first 2/3 of the book, now seems small compared to these oppressors and what they do to their captives on a daily basis. Simenon is almost responding directly to Camus: sure, anyone can be a murderer, but there is always a bigger thug with a larger stick waiting in the wings. Having been written in the time of Gulags and Nazi camps, Simenon reminds us that there is murder and then there is Murder.
A slight spoiler warning here: At the end of the book, there is a weird note, which William T. Vollman points out in his afterword (and somewhat defends). While some may take this as a poor attempt at a silver lining, I think one could see another reading of it: Frank is out of his head. What he sees is not there, having been pushed to the limits by his aggressors, and knowing full well what fate awaits him. In those final moments, he is dreaming of the only positive future he can conjure. Whereas Meursault found happiness in the indifference of the world, Herr Friedmaier finds no such solace.
Next up in my run through of the great Post-War Japanese literary giants, is Kōbō Abe. (You can check out my review of Shusaku Endo’s Silence here).
INext up in my run through of the great Post-War Japanese literary giants, is Kōbō Abe. (You can check out my review of Shusaku Endo’s Silence here).
I actually discovered Abe not through his books, but through the films of Hiroshi Teshigahara. The Face of Another, which was adapted by the director from Abe’s novel, is an eerie film, with Tatsuya Nakadai doing a stellar job as the businessman who loses his identity (and his moral self in the process). I then moved on to The Woman in the Dunes, but didn’t think the film worked as well as The Face of Another. The repetition of the lead character’s isolation dragged the film down rather than creating suspense.
The book however is another story...
Abe’s short novel is as gritty as the ever-present sand that permeates the tale, in spite of having no typical aspects of a crime or suspense novel.
To be sure, the story does involve a kidnapping, namely one Jumpei Niki, a schoolteacher and entomologist who travels to a small remote village to collect rare insects from amongst the sand dunes. Having missed the final bus out of town, the locals offer to let him stay the night. They lead him to a deep pit within the dunes, wherein is small wooden cottage and the young widow who lives there. Niki climbs down the roper ladder and like a fly in the web, so he is trapped.
What makes the novel so sinister is Abe’s spare prose and simplicity in telling the tale. The villagers feel no remorse for trapping Niki, if anything they feel justified in their actions. After all, someone must dig up the sand they feel forced to sell illegally to companies and people in the cities in order to earn a living. More importantly, if the sand is not extracted from the pits that pockmark the landscape, the villagers who live within the dunes will be smothered to death. In order to survive, Niki must help the widow dig out the sand each night. But is she a victim as well, or part of the trap?
Abe takes sand, the most innocuous of items, and turns it into a sinister nemesis. The sand creeps into everything, constantly covering and eating away at the buildings and ultimately Niki.
While the repetition of Niki’s days in captivity slow down the film version, Abe uses the device to great effect in the novel, adding to the psychological tension of the story. As the days creep on, Niki at first tries to find reason in his absurd situation. Then as panic sets in, he tries to scheme his way out of the pit, becoming ever more desperate in his attempts to leave the village. I won’t give away the ending, but the poor soul is both literally and figuratively in over his head.
What Abe ultimately delivers is a story of a man trapped in an oppressive situation. While it is somewhat heavy-handed in its allusion to our own lives, The Women in the Dunes is chilling in its depiction of Niki’s capture, psychological torment, and ultimate fate. This leaves the reader with the question, “Am I not trapped as well?”...more
I was traveling to London on business. Whenever I get a chance to go abroad, I try to read something “of the region.” Or at least something that contaI was traveling to London on business. Whenever I get a chance to go abroad, I try to read something “of the region.” Or at least something that contains a metaphor for the trip. Reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Stevenson on my first trip to London and Edinburgh worked quite nicely. Digging into Gulliver’s Travels by Swift while traveling through Sweden, a fantastic land that was completely alien to me at the time, was a perfect call. I won’t discuss the mistake of trying to read The Spider’s House by Paul Bowles while visiting Morocco. Two-for-three as they say.
For this trip to London, I wanted something indubitably British. The options were endless. But I handicapped myself with one stipulation: it had to be available for Amazon’s Kindle e-reader. I’ve had one for a few months now and have adapted quite nicely to reading newspapers and magazines on the device. But I had yet to finish a full novel. I was dead set on doing it for this trip, if for no other reason than keeping the bags light and not wanting to pack several books. After choosing a few novels that were not available (damn you digital rights!!!), I stumbled upon Crash by J.G. Ballard. It made perfect sense – here was an author delving into the complications of humanity’s increasing reliance on technology. What better book to read on a Kindle? And the book is indubitably British in its sense of humor and sort of dry delivery.
Which brings us to the book itself…
Crash could’ve been one of those novels. You know the one I’m discussing. It’s a really clever idea. Very clever. So clever that agents will engage in rugby scrums to get their hands on it. More often than not, it comes from a graduate of an MFA program. Publishers will jump into a frenzy, bidding with foaming mouths during an auction. Here is the future! Here is the savior of literature! Here is… Well nothing more than a clever idea poorly executed. It is the equivalent of seeing a Richard Prince exhibit. In the end you are left to say, “Well he’s clever, but that is all I can say about him.”
In many ways, Crash could’ve been that novel. The metaphor of car crashes as sexual affairs is driven (pun intended) down the reader’s throat. It’s carried to ridiculous lengths within the prose. “The aggressive stylization of this mass-produced cockpit, the exaggerated mouldings of the instrument binnacles emphasized my growing sense of a new junction between my body and automobile, closer than my feelings for Renata’s broad hips and strong legs stowed out of sight beneath her red plastic raincoat. I leaned forward, feeling the rim of the steering wheel against the scars of my chest, pressing my knees against the ignition switch and handbrake.” That is one of the tamer passages, as Ballard takes the metaphor to its fullest extent.
In the hands of most writers, the novel would’ve fallen apart quickly, a clever idea collapsing into itself. But Ballard expertly weaves it into a portrayal of humanity going quite mad, car crazy if you will. The character of Vaughan can even be seen as a non-entity, a mirror of the narrator’s increasingly decaying sanity. The world was already obsessed with cars when the novel was written in 1973. Our problems with climate change and an addictive need for oil to keep the gas-guzzlers running has proven that we’ve grown more deranged in our attachment to cars and driving since then. One need look no further than the SUV craze of the 1990s and early 2000s to see how prescient Ballard truly was. Americans bought large bulked up, big block, SUVs in droves – despite the gas guzzling nature of the vehicles and our already well-attuned environmental consciousness. The sexual overtones are obvious. I’m an impotent sheep at work; give me something monstrous to drive so I feel hard. A bit over the top I know, but dig deep, and it really boils down to that. Or did you really say, “Screw the environment, my kid needs a tank to be protected from other drivers!” Either way, it makes us look like fools.
And that’s the beauty of Crash. Ballard takes us into ourselves. The prose is cutting, biting. It wounds us, much like a flight through a windshield, leaving a map of scars. He picks apart our obsessions with automobiles (and the sexuality inherit with that obsession) and in a brilliant, over-the-top satire, lays out our ugliness on a morgue table.
Needless to say, I had a smashing time in London....more
I was lucky enough to read Sándor Márai’s The Rebels while traveling through Budapest, Bratislava, and Prague. This was part of my standing rule of reI was lucky enough to read Sándor Márai’s The Rebels while traveling through Budapest, Bratislava, and Prague. This was part of my standing rule of reading a novel from the country you are visiting while traveling. In paid off well with Stevenson in the UK and Strindberg in Sweden. It did not serve me well with Bowles in Morocco. In the case of Márai it was a perfect fit. Having had my feet on the ground, mangling the Hungarian language in my worst attempts at communicate with the locals, I experienced the feeling of Budapest for myself.
There is a mellowness and peace to Hungarians these days. It may be due to the fact that until recently, Hungary was constantly being conquered by one empire or military power after another. The Turks, Habsburgs, Nazis, and Stalinists all took their turn. For a brief period, leading up to and into World War I, Hungary merged with Austria, forming the second largest country in Europe. However, the defeat of the central powers in World War I, including Austria-Hungary, lead to 70 years of dark days for the country. It is at that stumbling point -- Austria-Hungary’s entry in the war -- that Márai sets the book, having experienced first hand the embarrassing (for Hungarians) dissolution of the dual monarchy and its multi-ethnic society.
I state all this not to drone on about trivia, but to point out the context of The Rebels and the historical reality of what Márai experienced at the time of the writing the novel. For some reason, Americans don’t seem to ‘get’ The Rebels. I’ve seen reviews where readers say the book is too foreign to enjoy, have labeled Márai as anti-Semitic and homophobic, and even more absurd, state that they cannot relate to the characters because they are all adolescent males. Take that Holden Caulfield. These sad misperceptions of The Rebels cause these readers to miss out on what is a superb novel. Dated, perhaps. Esoteric to western culture? No more than any Russian novel. Anti-everything-under-the-sun? Considering that Márai pined for multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Hungary in his Memoir of Hungary, was highly critical of the Nazis (a dangerous stance under the Arrow Cross Government), and soundly against the subsequent puppet-communist regime installed by Stalin, it is very doubtful the book has a prejudice against anything except oppression and senseless death.
As the title suggests, the focus of the book is rebellion. In this case, four childhood friends who, fearing their subsequent banishment to the front lines of World War I, engage in a very adolescent form of rebellion, starting with lying, but eventually moving on to mind games, and out-and-out theft. The friends -- Ábel, Tibor, Ernò, and Béla -- are snapshots of Hungarian youth at that time. The first a wealthy (but disassociated) son of a doctor, the second an almost too beautiful and unrugged son of a colonel, the third a lower class son of a disfigured cobbler, the fourth an irresponsible son of a shopkeeper. At the start of the book, all four are lost -- at least in the sense that the looming spectre of death in the trenches has them incapable of seeing any future. This is represented most notably by Tibor’s brother who returned from the front minus an arm and a good chunk of his sanity. The disorderly appearance of Ábel’s room, after a night of drinking and card playing, is a perfect metaphor for the state of mental disarray they are experiencing. In this mess, Ábel discovers by chance that one of the four has cheated at cards. Rather than be infuriated by the trickery, it spurs Ábel (and eventually the others) to attempt more daring forms of lying, deceit, and thievery. They become, in essence, a gang. The misguided rebellion, as one would expect, leads to their downfall, most notably at the hands of the pawnbroker Havas and a mysterious accomplice, who is not revealed until later in the book. Ultimately, this downfall becomes a tale of revenge, spurned on by class conflict, homophobic resentment, and a disconnect with authority (most notably represented by the fathers of the tale).
Márai is one of those exceptional writers who was able to make his characters live and breathe. A great example of this is the actor, Amadé, who is rendered so wonderfully complete in his idiosyncrasies, expressions, and almost bipolar flips in emotion:
“It was as if his girth were no more than some kind of misapprehension that existed between him and the world at large, and he never ceased talking about it. He spoke eloquently and at length to both intimates and strangers in the effort to persuade them that he was not fat. He produced precise measurements and medical tables showing average proportions to prove he was as slender as a flamingo and that his figure was in all respects the manly ideal, his belly swelling as he did so because, in his passion, he forgot to hold it in.”
When not giving the characters the well-roundedness that is signature to the book or focusing on their exploits, Márai paints dark portraits of the town, reminding the reader that in spite of the self-centered acts of the four teenagers, there is the darker world of World War I surrounding them. This description of corpses from the war nails the looming threat and the stark reality of the novel’s setting perfectly:
“All objects--houses, public squares, whole towns--puff themselves up with spring moonlight, swelling and bloating like corpses in the river. The river dragged such corpses through town at a run. The corpses swam naked and traveled great distances... they floated rapidly down on the spring flood heading towards their ultimate terminus, the sea. The dead were fast swimmers.”
In the end, it is the gang’s reluctance to own up to the consequences of their actions, their shucking off of adult responsibility in favor of blind rebellion, that proves to be their downfall. They are still children, playacting at rebellion. Márai parodies this superbly when Amadé brings the gang to a theater, dressing them up as characters in a bad stage play. The gang is happy to keep up their exploits when the going is easy, but they grow increasingly panicky and paranoid as their schemes begin to unravel. When the consequences are laid out so clearly at the end of the novel, Márai lets no one off easy.
Perhaps that is because Márai knew where all this rebellion and senseless violence would lead. It never served Hungary well in real life, only resulting in the death of too many citizens for senseless reasons. And in the world of The Rebels, every action has a consequence that ultimately wrenches the gang into adulthood with all its ugly realities....more
You have to applaud simplicity in writing. It is the hardest thing for a writer to achieve. That sense of keeping the book ‘small’ for lack of a betteYou have to applaud simplicity in writing. It is the hardest thing for a writer to achieve. That sense of keeping the book ‘small’ for lack of a better term, honing the story down to the barest strokes on the canvas. I always thought Hemingway did it beautifully with The Old Man and the Sea. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson is another great ‘small’ book that draws you in with its perfectly simple prose and contstruction.
In many ways, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is closer to the latter. It is a series of vignettes, rather than flowing narrative. It almost reads like a short story collection with all of the vignettes focusing on young Sophia and her grandmother, de facto stand-ins for the writer herself. At the time of writing, Jansson was a in her sixties, a grandmother, but also had recently lost her own mother (which happens to Sophia at the start of the book). It is this great understanding of both characters that allows her to imbue them with such life. Sophia is a precocious child, prone to fits and bouts of crying, and yet, can switch to being serene and adult. The Grandmother on the other hand is loving and accommodating, constantly nurturing Sophia in her adventures, but then swings into bouts of adolescent anger and bad behavior. The wonderful scene where she breaks into a neighbor’s house is a great example.
“In the middle of the gravel was a large sign with black letters that said PRIVATE PROPERTY—NO TRESPASSING.
‘We’ll go ashore,’ Grandmother said. She was very angry. Sophia looked frightened. ‘There’s a big difference,’ her grandmother explained. ‘No well-bred person goes ashore on someone else’s island when there’s no one home. But if they put up a sign, then you do it anyway, because it’s a slap in the face.’
‘Naturally,’ Sophia said, increasing her knowledge of life considerably.’
‘What we are now doing,’ Grandmother said, ‘is a demonstration. We are showing our disapproval. Do you understand?’
‘A demonstration,’ her grandchild repeated, adding, loyally, ‘This will never make a good harbor.’”
The interaction between the two is often hilarious and at other times really touching. They constantly swap roles, as in that scene from “The Neighbors,” where the grandmother can’t help but behave childishly while Sophia grows instantly into an adult. Writing from her advanced age, Jansson is able to look back at the two sides of herself and imbue a sort of rough love between them.
What truly grabs you about The Summer Book, strong characters aside, is its sense of place. It is a book of and about Scandinavian life on a tiny island in the Finnish archipelago. In her introduction, Kathryn Davis describes the book’s “unusual point of view, which hovers above and around the island and seems not so much to move from grandmother to granddaughter as to share them.” It’s imbued with the air, soil, and water of the small archipelago island where the stories are set. It has that contemplation and patience that one finds in Swedes, Norwegians, and Fins. Jansson gives you that sense of awe when viewing the landscape. You can feel yourself amongst the marshes, bilberry bushes, Rosa Rugosa, polished stones on the beaches, wet grass, and dense forests. You can feel yourself floating around in the small boats and feel the wind and rain on your face. You can see the long slow sunsets that last until after 10 pm. In many ways, the characters are small compared to the natural surroundings they walk through. It is a very Scandinavian appreciation of nature and while reading it you get a sense of walking through one of Carl Larsson’s watercolors.
While not all of the vignettes in The Summer Book are solid, “Berenice” and “Dead Calm” fall a little flat, the rest more than make make up for the duds. Some are quite funny, such as “The Neighbor,” “Of Angelworms and Others,” and “The Cat.” Others have a wonderful sense of sadness such as “Midsummer” or the closing “August.”
“Every year, the bright Scandinavian summer nights fade away without anyone’s noticing. One evening in August you have an errand outdoors, and all of a sudden it’s pitch-black. A great warm, dark silence surrounds the house. It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive.”
As you keep reading the vignettes in The Summer Book, you always feel yourself there, walking along with Sophia and her grandmother, or floating in the boat, soaking up the atmosphere of the tiny little island in the Finnish Archipelago. It has that same quality that all great paintings from Scandinavian painters have, whether it be Munch or Larsson or Zorn, to instantly give you a sense of that northern lit sky and the serenity of the landscape beneath it. ...more
When Jean d’ Halluin first published I Spit On Your Graves in 1946, he was looking for a bestseller to kickstart his new imprint, Editions du ScorpionWhen Jean d’ Halluin first published I Spit On Your Graves in 1946, he was looking for a bestseller to kickstart his new imprint, Editions du Scorpion. Written by an African-American writer named Vernon Sullivan, the book was a visceral, often misogynistic, and (once it gets rolling) violent pulp novel offering a gritty commentary on racial injustice in the United States.
The plot centered on Lee Anderson, a light skinned black man seeking revenge for the murder of his brother at the hands of whites. Anderson, takes his revenge by infiltrating southern society as a white man (he has light skin and blond hair), bedding every white woman he can, and ultimately selecting two of those women to murder as payback for his brother’s death. Despite being considered too controversial and subversive for U.S. publishers, the French public devoured the novel. By 1947, it outsold work by Sartre and Camus, giving d’ Halluin the bestseller he craved.
That alone would’ve made for interesting literary history. But there was more to the story…
Vernon Sullivan never tried to have the book published in the United States.
Vernon Sullivan did not exist. I Spit On Your Graves was in fact written by a Frenchman. A white Frenchman. Said Frenchman had never actually visited the United States.
Then there was the law suit filed against the author by Cartel d’action sociale et morale, the same right wing organization that tried to censor the work of Henry Miller.
Last but not least, there was the grisly murder committed by a Parisian man who strangled his mistress. The authorities discovered a copy of I Spit On Your Graves at the scene of the crime with a part where Lee Anderson dispatches one of his victims circled.
Hence its bestseller status. Who didn’t want to read the “murder book,” as the introduction Marc Lapprand calls it?
And then of course, there was the bigger question: what if the book was not about racial injustice at all?
On the surface, I Spit On Your Graves is a pulpy, not expertly written tale of murder and sex. And upon first reading, I Spit On Your Graves comes across as that – a cheap pulp mystery, lacking only the cover illustration of a woman screaming, hands raised against her face, as an unseen stalker comes at her with a knife.
It is overflowing with graphic sex (for its time) where Lee takes the female characters in every scenario imaginable (barring midgets and donkeys). At first one would take it as a sub-par Tropic of Cancer, except that the reader’s knowledge of Lee’s racial identity gives the book a taboo that is non-existent in Miller’s novels. Lee gets his hands on every white woman he possibly can, and they are all too willing to be taken, even if they don’t admit it at first (as is the case with Lou Asquith). As Lee relates early on in the story, “I had all the girls, one after the other, but it was a bit too easy, it turned my stomach.” It comes off like a line from a 70s Blaxploitation film. And in many ways, I Spit On Your Graves reads like a Blaxploitation script. However, as the book goes on Lee flips from bragging of his conquests to being disgusted at how far he has sunk to achieve his revenge. He becomes increasingly sickened by his seduction of the Asquith girls and this drives him further towards the violent outcome.
And that is where the book starts to turn from pure pulp sadism and gratuitous sex into a more layered, psychological exploration. We know Lee is seeking revenge. We know he is going to kill. It is only a matter of time and the reader is forced to travel down the road, dragged further and further into Lee’s madness, strapped in, unable to change the course.
Keep in mind, Vian was no pulp writer. He was a contemporary of Sartre and Camus, who wrote the incredibly well received Froth on the Daydream (also translated as Foam of the Daze). He was also a translator, poet, music, critic, and jazz musician who was close with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.
In many ways, it is similar to Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, forcing you to see the world of the book through the eyes of a very twisted and violent narrator. We immediately find ourselves repulsed by the narrator’s narcissism, their ruthlessness, and most importantly their penchant for extremely grisly acts. And yet, it is this grotesque, amped, psychotic, bloodthirsty humanity that captivates us.
I’m not the first person to make such a comparison between these two books. However, there is a major difference between them. Whereas Ellis was satirizing society, specifically the Reagan-worshipping stockbrokers of the 80s, Vian was going deeper – he was satirizing publishing and ultimately, the reader.
After all, sex and murder were rampant in novels published circa 1946. Both are still widely used as devices and plot points today. In fact, one could argue that both are necessary lynchpins of all modern literature. Sex and death is what it’s all about.
The book is so overly violent and misogynist because Vian is parodying pulp writing, a form very prevalent in post-war France when he wrote I Spit On Your Graves. Like Swift’s A Modest Proposal, it takes the argument to its fullest extreme, giving readers the ultimate in literary-noir: a story so extremely violent and disgusting to modern thinking that the reader can’t put it down.
Much has been said about the social commentary perceived within I Spit On Your Graves. Of this one can look literally. Lee, a black man who’s brother was murdered by whites, seeks revenge by wreaking havoc on white society. In the end however, without giving anything away, there is no justice for Lee. So it is easy to see I Spit On Your Graves as a biting commentary on racial injustice in America during the 20th Century.
But in many ways, Vian is still having his fun with us. After all, he’s not trying to convince us that Lee is an unfortunate character of racial injustice that we should pity. He’s getting us to hate Lee Anderson in spite of his quest for justice. After all, Vian’s audience was white, educated, French society. And it is Lee’s racial identity, his status as ‘black’ that made (and still makes the book) so controversial. If Lee was a white man bedding a bunch of women and then murdering two of them, it would be a Harry Crews novel. Vian however spins the tables, serving up a tale of a violent, lustful black man out for revenge, one that horrifies and yet draws us in, convincing a repulsed and outraged public to keep on reading. Ultimately the joke is on us. We are thinking of racial injustice, clinging to the social message seemingly contained within the book, and yet it is the titillating bits – the sex and death – that keep us reading. Swift would’ve been proud....more
In an odd twist of fate, Alain Robbe-Grillet died the same week that I finally finished reading his debut novel, The Erasers. I don’t ascribe any impoIn an odd twist of fate, Alain Robbe-Grillet died the same week that I finally finished reading his debut novel, The Erasers. I don’t ascribe any importance to that, it was just odd.
The Erasers reminds me of Black Sabbath's Black Sabbath or The Stooges The Stooges or Metallica's Kill 'Em All or Public Enemy's Yo! Bum Rush the Show. There is something great here, it isn't perfected yet, but there is hint of something amazing to come. This grand experiment will yield a Paranoid or a Fun House or a Master of Puppets or a It Takes A Nation of Millions….
In many ways, The Erasers is the most ‘conventional’ of Robbe-Grillet’s novels if for no other reason than it was his first stab at the New Novel. On the surface, the story can even be perceived as a more intricate form of crime fiction. In a small seaside town, Daniel Dupont, a professor, becomes the ninth victim in nine days of an unknown assassin. Theories abound as to the murder’s true identity: a terrorist group unhappy with the professor’s political leanings or a long lost bastard child. Arriving in town the day after the murder is one Detective Wallas who has been sent to investigate the murder. And so it begins…
Over a 24-hour period, Robbe-Grillet has us following Wallas, wandering down blind alleys, retracing steps, replaying scenes over and over again, as he would in Jealousy and In the Labyrinth. We are introduced to the assassin, or are we? We meet many witnesses, but have they actually seen anything? Soon we are forced to ask a disturbing question: Is Wallas in fact the assassin? Is he investigating himself much like Gian Maria Volontè’s police inspector in the classic Elio Petri film, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.
The twisting labyrinthine plot – what would become Robbe-Grillet’s hallmark – draws you into the story, taking it to a psychological level that most crime novels (and lesser authors) are unable to achieve. You are forced to consider the possibility that Wallace has a dark side to his character that even his own brain will not reveal to the reader (something RG used even more effectively in The Voyeur). Only by ‘tailing’ Wallas do we start to see the pieces of the disjointed puzzle pulled together and ultimately the grim, inevitable outcome.
In The Erasers, Robbe-Grillet has not completely abandoned traditional use of character and plot. There is a storyline here, but it is condensed into a frenetic series of meetings, arguments, subterfuge, and yes, murders. We are left with dead ends, miscues, faulty memories, and cryptic messages that the confound the reader as much as Wallas. It is this aspect that can turn someone away; the plot is not laid out as a simple series of events and an impatient readers quickly shut down. But compared to Robbe-Grillet’s later novels, The Erasers is a great entry point to his writing, the rabbit-hole if you will.
As I said, I don’t consider The Erasers to be Robbe-Grillet’s finest work. He is a young sprite, playing with new ideas. He wouldn’t hit his stride until Jealousy and In the Labyrinth. But my god, what a hell of a debut. And still more infinitely fascinating and perfectly executed than the endless train of ‘meta-novels’ unleashed in years after by lesser writers. It stands in the shadows of Robbe-Grillet’s later work, but still exists as one of the great experiments in novel writing. And more importantly, the story is still intriguing, fascinating, and addictive. ...more