My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In the former, the wanderer Knut Pedersen leaves behind his city life with the romantic fantasy of leading a simple village life. He begins to do odd jobs on farms, but finds his heart often interfering with his idea of simplicity as he falls in love with the women of the house. His adopted simplicity is not able to lure him into settling down on a farm with one of the maids as his simpleton companion does. Like most of Hamsun’s heroes, he hangs in abeyance in a feverish passion, that works to depress and exalt him alternatively, but also always keeps him on his feet. He is the confused man who does not know what he wants – whether it is the affections of one lady or the other, or merely a life in the woods. It is, in a way comical to read of his mild frustrations, because he seems to be oriented towards what he apparently escaped from while escaping the city. It is also comical because these are the confusions of a real person, whose element is inconsistency and not a singular approach to life which seems to be the characteristic of most other protagonists.
In On Muted strings, Pedersen, six years later, returns to one of the farms where he had worked during his earlier wanderings. And if there is a word that can describe the emotion of this narrative, it is the well chosen word in the title – muted. This hero is certainly different from Hamsun’s other heroes, he is a quietened, withdrawn soul in contrast to the earlier restless character. There is that lack of the characteristic fervor, although still retaining his element of estrangement and frivolity. He is more a narrator now than the protagonist – as he observes the life of the landowners, which are portrayed in shades of decadence. Though I think he tries to refrain from it, Hamsun does pass his negative reflections on alcoholism and infidelity in his commentary, something that trivializes him a bit in my opinion. Though I do not expect an author to be an unbiased observer, I think he could keep well above the station of passing moral judgements.
I have quoted Hamsun on his view of his characters in an earlier post – I recently chanced upon a more detailed commentary on these characters which I found quite appropriate:
Fictional heroes who are estranged from their environment seldom emerge lifelike. With most writers, such heroes are mere shadows, or, at best, symbols. But Hamsun is able to portray both the environment and the alienation, the soil and the extirpation. His heroes have roots even though they cannot be seen. The reader never knows precisely how they have become what they are, but their existence is real all the same.
Hamsun’s favourite hero is a young man in his late twenties or early thirties, rash, good-natured, with no plans for the future, always anticipating some happy chance, yet at the same time resigned and melancholy. Hamsun’s hero is frivolous in word and deed. He speaks to people as he would to a dog or to himself.
Perhaps this work does not quite compare to Hunger or Mysteries, and is only a slighted shadow of these, but it is a very good read, describing a real man and his romantic fantasies of a simple village life, and of a lot of other romantic notions. The translation by Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass is excellent.
I tried and tried to find the Michel Hoffman translation of this illustrious work, but found only the version translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Before reading, I had read enough about the superior quality of the former, and the wanting standards of latter. May be I do not have the ability to judge translations, but I was quite moved by the version I read. It was masterful story-telling, which was neither dense nor complicated, but a simple narration about an empire which suddenly found itself hung between changing times.
The novel is set in the Austro-Hungarian empire, where Roth had served in the army, and which he was quite nostalgic about for all his life. However, in stead of directly outlining the decline of this empire, in a creative stroke, Roth exchanged the empire with the Von Trotta family and described the empire’s fate only in so much as it affected the fate of this family. The novel moves through three generations of the family, and each von Trotta is in many ways a constrained man. The largest part of the story revolves around the youngest generation, Carl Joseph Von Trotta, who is a very weak man, forever caught between the lure of duty (as chracterized by the playing of the Radetzky March) and his lack of conviction towards any ideas. He often considers leaving the army, but does not have the motivation to look for a civilian job, and hangs around in anticipation.
In fact, the entire novel is about anticipation. The empire is on a verge of change, and therefore in the chaotic stage where the old order is not respected enough and a new order is not formed yet. This abatement is very beautifully played out by Roth, may be because he felt this abeyance throughout his life after his exile from Austria.
There is so much in the book that makes it a superior work. There is the experience of an empire felt through personal pain, there is a presence of many powerful characters (Dr. Demant the best of them, whose death makes the meaninglessness of times even more pronounced), there is the haunting and helpess presence of the Kaiser in every place, there is a conflict of generations and those of thoughts, there is love, and honour and most underlined – there is death. Mostly meaningless and unheroic, which is not a mean achievement in an epic novel. For isn’t every death in a novel about an empire supposed to be a death of honor and valor? And the fact there is no explanation for the decayence of the empire, except the expression of the widespread bias in minor incidents- against Jews, Slavs, Hungarians and everyone else.
Reading this novel, at many points I had a sense of deja-vu, for at those places it reminded me very closely of Zweig’s Beware of Pity. Both Zweig’s hero and Carl find themselves in the Austrian army, amidst similar kinsman who often dwell in rumours and squander hours in a pub. Both heroes find themselves implicated in matters of honor, which forces them to chose transfers. And both go to war without heroism. I wonder if the similar fate of the two is responsible for such a strong parallel, or if one’s text influenced the other in some way. But that is beside the point, for the emotions each expresses is so difficult that they can never be confused for the other.
I loved the book. It is after all individuals who experience wars, crumbling empires and changing times. The empire simply crumbles without experiencing any emotion. I wonder why such a simple idea occurred to only this relatively obscure writer?
Though the review was being written for the movie, it is clearly meant for the story itself. I personally thought the review rather unjust. Though there were times when I thought the author was purposely leading us to believe that there was far more severity to the situation than there actually was, and was over-analyzing/dramatizing the sequence of events, I found it remarkable for its very thorough analysis of ‘pity’ and detailing of mind’s working when faced with moral choices. By chewing repeatedly the same idea, Zweig has been successful in presenting a complete psycho-analytic case. Which,perhaps, is what he intended, as he apparently ‘saw himself as a kind of Freud of fiction’. I also think it is an unreasonable demand to expect an ocean of ideas from every good piece of literature – a good piece of literature can also choose to present one idea completely and thoroughly, and that sometimes has greater merit.
…one of those puddle-depth stories that, draining themselves with a sort of literary eye dropper, pretend to contain oceans of ideas. The tedious technique might seem justified if it conveyed vivid people, or even lively situations. Beware of Pity conveys only one droplet of an idea (there are two kinds of pity: good & bad) diluted in gallons of plot.
The story, in short is about a young second lieutenant Anton Hofmiller, who after spending most of his life in the military, is rather immature and clumsy in his social behavior. Invited at a landowner’s place once for dinner, he asks his daughter for dance, to which she violently reacts as she is a cripple and unable to stand on her feet. Ashamed with his insensitive behavior, Anton tries to atone for it with a friendly visit,and before he knows, is thoroughly engulfed in a vortex of sympathy which finds him spending every day with this girl.
There were a few features in the story which were very remarkable – one of them is a scene where Hofmiller is enjoying a lofty ride on his horse, galloping swiftly, when suddenly reminded of the girl, feels guilty for this speed and his joy at horse-riding, and recedes to a slow halt. What is so remarkable is not just the description of the scene, which is very visual, but also the germination of the idea of pity and commiseration, which marks the rest of the book.
At many places, Anton alludes to an Arabian story where a young man takes pity on a flailing old man and puts him on his shoulders. The old man turns out to be a djinn who clutches the man’s shoulders in a vice-like grip, refusing to be dislodged. This analogy of pity with a djinn is often repeated and serves quite well to describe the author’s suffocation.
I have not read Zweig before, and this is one of his most illustrious works (apparently the only novel that he wrote and published in his lifetime). I would like to read his Chess Story and also The Post-Office Girl. There is a nice article on the latter (and also on Zweig’s writing in general) in Nation.
BTW, I am quite intrigued with the parallel between the lives of Zweig and Joseph Roth.
And why? Because my hero is no character, no ‘type,’ … but a complex, modern being.
– Knut Hamsun
In this novel, a stranger (Nagel) lands in an idyllic, ‘simple’ coastal town of Norway, for no particular reason. In his unexplained, eccentric existence, he throws the apparently well-formed community into a commotion, bringing out the subtle evil and in-equations amongst the people. Throughout the story, everyone tries to unravel the mysteries behind this stranger – the town, the reader and most of all Nagel himself, who seems to be as puzzled by his actions as others are. Very appropriately, even the writer seems to explore the mystery for a while, and then leaves it unfinished.
I found Mysteries to be a novel of the subconscious. Very often, Nagel seems to act on instincts, which, if he explores, turn out to be conscious logical behavior choices. There are many dreams and memories that seem to guide him, and in each he (and the reader) tries to find a symbol. Although, Nagel’s behavior could also be inspired by a very acute level of consciousness (as he suggests a few times), where he is able to predict the impact of his behavior on other people. In this calculation of moves, he appears to me very similar to the Johannes of Seducer’s Diary, though Johannes was far more consistent with his premeditation than Nagel. In this, he is much closer to a ‘normal’ modern man, who is sometimes calculative, manipulative, sometimes moved to humanitarian acts and sometimes just plain silly and argumentative. It is quite remarkable that Hamsun is able to draw out these lapses into the subconscious, and so fluidly merge them into the conscious.
Apart from the symbols that drive Nagel, he himself is a symbol of modernism, as he breaks from the norms of a collective conscience and chooses personal and individual confusion. This choice may be the force that thwarts the town’s order and poses a question to its apparent stability. He opposes all established beliefs, even though he may not have a very sound logical standing in negating them. He seems to uphold inconsistency, unpredictability, and risk, and is therefore dangerous to the limited town.
There is a lot that I feel like saying about this work, which I found remarkably enthralling, but I don’t think I am much refined to put them down as a long essay – perhaps I will link those thoughts through in bits on the blog later. For now – I will stop at: I loved Nagel. And Hamsun. I will read more from this writer.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin: It is a story of homosexual love, but more than that, is a truly artful narration of guilt, selfishness and the absolute freedom of being in a foreign land. I loved the language and the frankness of the writer, his ability to draw the perceptive feel of Paris which is both dear and alien to the narrator. Even in the few pages of it, you feel the darkness and sourness of Giovanni’s room – which lives with you for sometime.
Bonjour Tristesse by Francois Sagan: Both Giovanni’s room and Bonjour Tristesse are part of the Great Love series by Penguin, which seems like a very promising series – though equally elusive, since I have been unable to find the remaining books, except Seducer’s diary which for some vague reason I have not been inclined to pick up. Anyways, I quite liked this slim novel, again for its clarity, frankness and captivating depiction of the life of hedonistic boredom. I was unable to quite see the parts in it that shocked France. Most likely it was the youth of the writer, combined with the surprising clarity with which she deals with the vanity of her age. But still shock is too strong an emotion for a country that I associated with hedonism.
Dead Souls by Gogol: This is part of my Russian Literature education series 🙂 I don’t think Russian literature can even begin to emerge without the reading of this book, which was just brilliant. I haven’t read Pushkin, and this is the oldest I have ventured in the genre, but I can already see in this book the formation of the unique narrative style of Russian masters, which is not found in any other literature. They talk you through the characters and the story, never themselves vanishing from the work or working behind the curtains. Dead souls is very critical of the Russian and Russia, and is also replete with a characteristic humor. I totally loved it, especially the first part. In the second part, the script gaps were a little disconcerting, but it was easy to see where the story was going. I think I should regress to Pushkin now – specially since Gogol was so enamored with him.
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: This is another great classic. I had started it two years ago and left it mid-way, and now on reading it again, am quite unsure as to why I did that. It is certainly engrossing. Even though it is a tale of misery, and reminded me terribly of ‘How green was my valley’ (Incidentally Ford has made very good adaptations of both works), I liked it for its transient nature and mobility. In every moment of reading it I felt the sense of impending doom, so much so that when the doom did come, I was left a bit unsatisfied with its stature. Despite all the despair in the story and the lives of the Joad family, there is a ring of resilience and stubborn hope which keeps the work alive.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth: I think I am quite sick of the American song and its much emphasized much hyphenated dream. As if Hollywood has not given this abhorrent self-love and self-glory enough stage, there are writers like Mr. Roth who want to underline it again. I hated the drama and the filmy story. The characters were inconsistent, and Roth did not quite know if he wanted to make this into a tear-jerking soap or a serious novel. Anyways he hung in between and managed to annoy me quite substantially. I was disappointed because this book was in the Critics list of Modern library, and I had not had yet come across complete disasters from that list. There is always a first time.
The Gathering by Anne Enright: I think the Booker has gone overboard in rewarding the absurd this year. I simply hated it – so much self-love and drama that is fit only for the room of a therapist. It is from works like these that you can learn how to make the most ordinary childhoods abused and the most normal families dysfunctional. Going by this yardstick, every person I know is likely to end down a river. The language was good – but what are good words placed in a poor context?
I am also reading Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain off an on. It is slightly of the style of Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and Chatwin’s In Patagonia. I am taking it very slow, because it is quiet and lazy, and relates Xingjian’s travels through the mountains and villages in search of the mountain of soul.Unlike the other two who travel alone and meet ghosts and people, Xingjian has created his own companions – a ‘you’ and a ‘she’, sometimes a ‘he’ joins them too on their long journey, and the effect is interesting. A lone traveler can only have thoughts, but a traveler with companions can tell stories, pose questions, delve into memories, relate to the places, tease, dramatize and make the place come alive.
Somehow, have not spent much time on this blog for a few days – mainly because of work, and also because my blogging time window was devoured by the two posts I wrote on my travel blog. I have not really read much in the last few days (Inching away with Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is quite full of information and ideas that it gets exhaustive), and my mind is too blank for thought!
In this reading I was quite impressed with the book. It is a little bit of a relief to read the love stories from these old Russian writers, even if most of their loves are tragic and pathetic and marred by a vague discontent (which is perhaps a most fitting treatment of this virtue). But at least they talk of love, which seems to be a kind of disease many illustrious author are keen to shy away from. I found this work from Turgenev to be essentially a love story too, though it played a wider canvas by slighting that romanticism, often being ashamed of it too like the modern writer, but eventually surrendering to emotion.
It is a riveting work, ever engaging and spreading out the futility of both a complete rejection and a thoughtless liberalism. With dexterity, Turgenev is able to mock an allegiance to either school, even though it appears that his sympathy lies with the old order, because he gives it a more human color as compared to the almost ridiculous shade granted to the new order in form of Bazarov and a half hearted Arkady. Personally, though I would be more biased towards nihilism than towards the well-manicured ostentatious existence of Pavel Petrovich, I thank God that these are not my only two choices!Adopting Nihilism is like adopting despondence for life, and really, I look terrible with a frown or any sort of perpetually serious expression. 🙂 I would rather be a skeptic.
Though I hate to put a gender color to any work, I did feel that this work was almost exclusively a male work. The women were all in plain shades – either timid and superstitious devotees like Bazarov’s mother, or calculating and capricious like Anna Odintsov. Turgenev refused to give them any hues which he awarded the men who were allowed to experience different emotions – feel strong or foolish, get bored or fight ridiculous duels. But then, the work is called “Fathers and Sons” – and makes no claims to feminism.
I plan to follow up this one with Dead Souls soon – striving for a completion of the ‘Modern Russian literature’ course with my recent reading of Dostoevsky.
Liquidation was a good read, my one complaint with it being the introduction of a narrative structure within it, and then a complete abandoning of that that structure mid-way. Had it been a simple assortment of thoughts and recollections, without that ambitious and un-natural structure of a play within the novel, it would have perhaps been a far superior work, or more sincere.
Characteristic of Kertesz, the work is based in Auschwitz, and though none of the events in the plot happen there, the whole story rings around that one horrific word/place/planet. We find a set of characters haunted by Auschwitz and leading a life that is a kind of death. The main character B., born in Auschwitz, carries on with his life as a self-inflicted torture, a punishment and also a rebellion against the perpetrator of the holocaust, and accepts evil as the core of the world. And his bitterness, if that’s a word we can use to characterize his perception, seems perfectly justified when we imagine the holocaust horrors. Kertesz being a camp survivor himself, must know this feeling of hopelessness firsthand, at least in some bleak moments of reliving the tragedy.
The narrative structure is slightly flawed – we meet a character Kingbitter, who is supposed to be that invisible, slightly hidden narrator that we meet in a Sebald or Bernhard, but this narrator refuses to be in the shadows, and even in a small book that already has a tough task ahead of it, he manages to dedicate many pages to himself, forcing himself in every aspect of B.’s life, including an affair with his wife and then his mistress. This intrusion, sometimes was annoying, at other times it explained Kingbitter’s anxiousness to tell B.’s story, but if I had to take sides, I would say he should have stayed behind as the editor instead of trying to take the limelight.
A Village Voice review of the book can be found here. The reviewer sums up the book succinctly when he says:
Liquidation is at its core a book about writing, about trying to tell stories that resist being told. “Man may live like a worm,” Kingbitter insists, “but he writes like a god,” which, sometimes at least, in flashes, is enough.
Referred to as Roth’s Trotsky novel, the book loosely borrows from the life of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky to draw its own central character Friedrich Kargan. Kargan, at a young age gets involved in the revolution, spends time in the Siberian prison after being caught in an attempt to enter Russia to spread his ideas; he escapes and returns to Russia after the revolution to become the leader of the red army. However, after his return, he is perturbed with the growing bureaucratization of his country and realizes that the revolution he was trying to bring was already a dead idea and he already a man belonging to the past generation. Disappointed, he choses exile to Germany and spends his time in solitude and a discontent that is caused by rootlessness.
Through the writing, Roth has beautifully impounded on the disillusion that follows a great revolution, when all the ideas leading up to a revolution suddenly become extinct in the world after the inflexion point arrives. The peak of such a great upheaving then, is also its nadir and it leaves the leaders of such a revolution to leave gaping and without goals – now that their work is apparently over.
It is also a novel of exile and alienation, bringing to front in Roth’s own words as to how it feels on being banished from your own country. It was a feeling that presumably also played largely in his own life after the collapse of the Hapsburg empire where he had been serving in the army. In many ways, Kargan could be said to draw from Roth himself as much as he drew from Trotsky. Perhaps, that is why the words do not sound superimposed and ring with a disturbing reality, not even losing this reality through the translation. The solitude that is present throughout the book, is suddenly confronted by Roth in the chapters of his exile, specially when Kargan falls ill:
He lay alone in his room, in fever’s soft delirium, cosseted by solitude for the first time. Till now he had known only its cruel constancy and its obstinate muteness. Now he recognized its gentle friendship and caught the quite melody of its voice. No friend, no loved one and no comrade. Only thoughts came, like children, simultaneously begotten, born and grown.
Expressive words with a resounding sincerity. It is of course credit also to the translator, David Le Vay, that the sincerity transpired to the English text as well.
The Editor’s note tells me that the manuscript was never revised and prepared for publication during Roth’s lifetime – he had apparently shelved his Trotsky novel, even after making 3 diligent drafts. The published text is a result of a laborious and painstaking task of reconstructing the final work by leafing parts of the three drafts together.
When coming across such writers, I feel a little bit of panic and anxiety over what all good literature I might be missing out because there is not enough time to read it or not enough publicity is given to them. I wish I could just scoop it all up and read everything worth reading – and sometimes this feeling is greater than the joy that reading brings – I think I am, after all, that ridiculous reader from Calvino’s book, hunting desperately through books, overlooking sometimes the leisure of reading.
The book revolves around a reader who picks up the latest Calvino, which begins with a promising plot (which is shared with the other reader – YOU) – then finds a printing error in the book, and goes to return the book, to realize that due to an error at the publishing house, the book may have got mixed up with another. Enamored by the plot that he had begun, he buys the other book – but realizes that this is a different book from the one he had begun. Unfortunately this book too is blank after the first chapter. Thus begins this reader’s surreal and comic trail of the ‘real’ book – never going beyond the first chapter and never being able to find the same story again in any of the books. Amidst this pursuit, he also encounters another reader – a girl, whose presence adds a renewed fervor to his book-hunt.
The book is brilliant, not in the ten openings that Calvino has concocted, but whatever goes in the book between these stories. To a compulsive reader, the protagonist in the book is immediately identifiable, and at many points – for instance while describing the process of purchase of a book, Calvino makes you think that he has really come to know you and is talking to you. The fact that he uses a second person narrative also adds to this feeling. I loved the second person narrative – specially the technique of suddenly shifting the second person from one reader to another.
Then at one point Calvino himself comes into the story in the form of Silas Flannery and takes us through the writer’s mind, also in a way defending this book by explaining it away as a dream-book that is “only an incipit, that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning, the expectations still not focused on an object”. The entire chapter picked from Flannery’s diary was, to me the best part of the book. Here he describes the process of writing, and the various possibilities that can arise from a simple event. I also liked the last part of the book, in the library – which again tries to explain this hilarious anti-novel by talking about readers’ interests, their quest for a novel they read sometime in the past in everything they read, etc.
This book uses all techniques that could perhaps be taught in a creative writing class – actually this is the one thing that I found kind of annoying in it – it tried a little too hard to be ‘smart’ and ‘creative’. There also wasn’t something particularly great about the ten novels that begin in this book and end in the reader’s mind – most of them are beginnings of pulp fiction works, perhaps with very predictable courses. But that does not take away any edge from the stories – they are interesting possibilities as I said earlier. And these stories are secondary to the theme, which really is the reader’s hunt.
I enjoyed Calvino’s wit and humor, which kept the confusion pretty manageable. I found it whenever I thought of exchanging this anti-novel for a real novel. And so in the end, I had a satisfied smile of a person just off a mad roller coaster – mind-boggling and fun!