VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Untouchable (1997) by John Banville


Book Review
The Untouchable (1997)
 by John Banville

   Not to be confused with the 1987 American film about famous prohibition era FBI agent Elliot Ness, The Untouchable is about Victor Maskell, an Anglo-Irish double agent for Great Britain and the USSR during World War II and the early stages of the Cold War before becoming inactive in the mid 1950's.  Maskell is largely based on real life member of the Cambridge 4/5 Spy Ring Anthony Blunt, with whom Maskell shares multiple key characteristics.  The Cambridge Spy Ring is a fertile source for spy fiction materials as well as being a top seller in the world of non-fiction, but, mostly in the UK, I think.   In the United States, the Cambridge Spy Ring is little known and essentially never discussed.

  They were a group of intellectuals who were recruited by the Soviet Union prior to the Second World War, simultaneously feeding the USSR information while operating at the very highest levels of British government and military.  I was under the impression- and it's an impression reinforced by the Maskell/Blunt character in The Untouchable that they were all gay- almost more dangerous than being a spy for the USSR in mid century England.

  The form of The Untouchable is that of a roman a clef, the life and times of an extremely interesting and almost certainly wholly unsympathetic narrator.  This format reflects the sensibility of Maskell, who, as he repeatedly urges the reader to consider, is a creature of the period between wars in the United Kingdom, with all the excess that would entail (like an English counterpart of New York jazz age frolics).  The question of motivation lurks around the fringes of The Untouchable, never fully resolved, often belittled by Maskell.

  Banville carries off the sexual identity of Maskell with aplomb.  I think, in a sense, that conveying repression is easier than conveying expression, because so much is not said or even, for that matter, thought.  Although the reader assumes that Maskell is gay from jump street, he doesn't actually have a gay experience until after he is married with children.  Blunt was famously revealed as the fourth member of the Burgess-Maclean-Philby spy ring- all of whom appear in fictional guise in The Untouchable

  Banville's prose is ice cold.  It's very crisp, and state of the art.  There is little to no literary excess, no florid turns of phrase.  Banville possesses insight into the human condition, a prime reason why he is a perennial Nobel Prize for Literature long-shot.  Also he is the preeminent Irish novelist of his generation, so the extent that Ireland is going to get another Nobel Prize for Literature, he would be the guy. 

Saturday, December 09, 2017

The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (2017) by Yuri Slezkine

Cover of The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution by Yuri Slezkine




































Book Review
The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (2017)
 by Yuri Slezkine
Princeton University Press/Oxford University Press
Published August 27th, 2017
1126 pgs.

  I went back and looked at all the books I read this year to see if there was anything I liked more than The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution.  Finishing the first volume of Rembrance of Things Past by Proust was a real milestone, and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Shame and The Satanic Verses were all top 10 type titles.  I liked Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won the National Book Award and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Sunders, which one the Booker Prize.  I also read four titles by Nobel Prize for Literature winner Kazuo Ishiguo, and I felt like his most recent book,  The Buried Giant was sorely misunderstood by critics and audiences.

   But it was The House of Government, which is a history book- not even a novel- which is my favorite book of the year.  The House of Government is nothing short of a revelation, one of those history books that only comes along once or twice in a generation.  I would compare it to Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer in terms of the impact on our understanding of the subject matter.  Slezkine deserves recognition on every level: For his research, his construction of the book, his writing style and technique and the persuasiveness of his thesis, which is that Bolshevism was a millenarian religion like many others, and it's followers were like all millenarian followers.

   The House of Government was a literal place, a bespoke apartment building for the elite of the revolutionary government.  Slezkine traces the lives of the apartment dwellers: early days of prison, exile and revolution;  a "heroic" period where the residents were deeply involved in cementing the success of the Russian revolution, the post revolution hangover and finally the extermination of the entire "old" Bolshevik elite during the Red Terror.   Each period gets full attention.  The House of Government clocks in at over a thousand pages with another 200 pages of addendum's and notes.  It's researched like an academic history book but reads like a novel.  Ultimately, it is a must for anyone interested in the subject, or advances in the discipline of history.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Hallucinating Foucault (1996) by Patricia Dunker


Book Review
Hallucinating Foucault (1996)
by Patricia Dunker

   French intellectual Michel Foucault is one of those 20th century figures, like Freud or Einstein, who continues to inspire new generations, both with his actual ideas and also with his image.  In his case, that image is that of the sex-positive transgressive male homosexual, as aggressive about asserting his particular sexuality as any heterosexual man, with a fondness for vagrants and criminals, the rougher, the better.  It's this combination of intellect and danger that gives him such enduring appeal.

  In the recently reviewed The Seventh Function of Language by Binet, Foucault appears as an actual character in his 1980's who-done-it.  In Hallucinating Foucault, he does not appear in person, but he haunts the proceedings, which detail the activities of the unnamed narrator, a graduate student in literature at Cambridge University.   The narrator's subject is French novelist Paul Michel (fictional), who appears as a kind of literary doppelganger, or maybe spiritual manifestation, of Foucault.  At the beginning of Hallucinating Foucault, which is set in the "present," the narrator learns, through his girlfriend, known in the book only as "the Germanist," that Michel went stark raving mad and has spent the last decade of his life in an asylum near Paris.

  Off he goes then, to meet and befriend the subject of his research.  The description makes Hallucinating Foucault sound more off putting and pretentious than it actually is. It's one of those novels that will appeal to people who fondly remember the height of "post-modern" academic culture, and leave those on the outside incurious to investigate further.

The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016) by Anuk Arudpragasm


Book Review
The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016)
 by Anuk Arudpragasm

  It is easy to forget, or never learn, what, exactly was wrong with colonialism.  Aside from the obvious outrages such as discrimination and slavery, there were the more subtle but just as pernicious techniques of governance, many of which continue to vex these places decades later.  One of these techniques was to "divide and conquer" native populations by favoring one ethnic/religious/cultural group at the expense of another.   Decisions about which groups to favor were themselves the product of racism, and the result is that the removal of the colonial administration would inevitably unleash anger between the group which had been favored and the group (or groups) which were disfavored.

  The most "classic" example of this government technique of control in recent history is the Rwanda genocide, where the colonially favored Tutsi's became enmeshed in genocide with the Hutus, the disfavored group under colonial rule.  Sri Lanka was another location where this dynamic was much in evidence.  There, the British favored the minority Tamil population, ancient immigrants to Sri Lanka from the sub continent at the expense of the majority Sinhalese/Buddhist group.  In the aftermath of the British withdrawal, the Sinhalese took control of their government, and the Tamil's "fought back" through the formation of a nationalist liberation group, known as the Tamil Tigers, who immediately launched a bloody civil war, one that included the invention of the suicide bomber and wide spread civilian atrocities by both sides (but mostly by the Tamil's).

  Eventually, with major help from both China and Israel, the Sinhalese government trapped a mixed group of Tamil civilians and rebels on a single strip of beach in the north of the island and exterminated them down to the last man.  This happened in the spring of 2009, and The Story of a Brief Marriage, written by a Sri Lankan Tamil now studying Philosophy at Columbia University, is the story of a young civilian Tamil man trapped in that last redoubt, weeks before the end.

  I'm unaware of any other narratives- fictional or non- that take on the perspective of one of these civilians who was trapped- apparently the Sri Lankan army indiscriminately shelled the civilians along with the guerrillas, and The Story of a Brief Marriage is deserving of attention precisely becausethe viewpoint of the narrator is so unique.

  To recount the horrors of The Story of a Brief Marriage is to lessen the impact, but in a decade with plenty of explicit narratives about wars present and future, this one stands out.  There are no larger political issues, just the horror of being trapped in a war zone and targeted for annihilation by a very modern army.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Fugitive Pieces (1996) by Anne Michaels


Book Review
Fugitive Pieces (1996)
 by Anne Michaels

  Canada's second most famous poetess-novelist is Anne Michaels.  With only two novels to her name she didn't quite go all in on the novel like Margaret Atwood (Canada's most famous poetess-novelist).  Fugitive Pieces is the story of Polish-Greek Holocaust survivor Jakob Beer, a young Polish Jew rescued by a Greek geologist, and raised in Greece (during the war) and Canada (after.)  A second part of the book is narrated by Ben, the son of Holocaust survivors, who knows Beer as the successful poet he becomes in Toronto.

 When I know the author of a novel is also a poet, I expect certain experiences from the text.  A quality of elusiveness, abstracted imagery, the absence of common narrative sign posts that tell the reader what to expect.  Fugitive Pieces has all that and more- themes of trauma, grief, loss and memory (swiped that from the Wikipedia page for this book.)

 I read most of Fugitive Pieces sitting in the holiday-heavy hellscape of the Brand Americana mall in Glendale, CA., waiting for my car to get serviced down the street.  Holocaust and contemporary American mall Christmas decorations make for some awkward thoughts, particularly when many of the shoppers- heavy on Armenians, Persians and other near Eastern minorities, have experienced their own 20th century Holocaust experiences.  Perhaps the Brand Americana mall is heaven, and we all died.  Or maybe it's purgatory.

  

SIlk (1996) by Alessandro Baricco

Image result for silk film
The movie version of Silk starred Michael Pitt and Keira Knightley
Book Review
Silk (1996)
 by Alessandro Baricco


  Another example of the 1990's era "International Best Seller: Now a Major Motion Picture" genre, translated from the Italian, about a French "silkworm merchant-turned-smuggler" who travels to 19th century Japan to secure supplies of silk worms for a consortium of silk manufacturers in southern France.  While there, he meets a girl-woman with "European eyes" who becomes his obsession.

  There really isn't a whole lot to it besides that description.  Baricco has a poetic/elliptical prose style that obviously attracted readers.  Also, Silk clocks in at 130 pages with wide margins and triple spacing between lines, so it's a fast read for anyone with a junior high school education or up.  I wasn't moved.  Inexplicably, this is a core book of the 1001 Books list, having survived all revisions. Baffling. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Cocaine Nights (1996) by J.G. Ballard


Book Review
Cocaine Nights  (1996)
 by J.G. Ballard

 A book written in 1996 means that there are only ten more years left in the first edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  It also means that the editors are basically guessing at this point, since there were plenty of authors writing books in 1996 who didn't make the canon until after 1001 Books was put together.  The period between 1996-2006 reflects what people thought canonical in the present- that is a contradiction in terms, time being the one factor required before a true argument for canonical or non-canonical status is advanced.

  Whether Cocaine Nights is or is not canon makes little difference to me; I just like to read J.G. Ballard novels, and the weirder the better.  Cocaine Nights is weird in that it is a work of crime/detective fiction, with a travel writer older brother heading down to the Costa del Spain to examine the circumstances surrounding the arrest (and confession) of his brother over the deaths of five expats in a highly suspicious fire.   Charles Prentice, the older brother and narrator, is gradually drawn into a world of petty crime, recreational drugs and be-spoke pornography, seemingly abandoning his mission and allowing himself to become corrupted.

  In the end, it turns into classic Ballard, with characters espousing their theories of the coming "leisure society" and what it means.  Considering that Ballard was writing before the internet, his hypothesis sound prescient- the idea of wealthy westerners living in antiseptic condos devoid of community or human interaction sounds very much like the world of today.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Moor's Last Sigh (1995) by Salman Rushdie


Book Review
The Moor's Last Sigh (1995)
by Salman Rushdie

 The Moor's Last Sigh was Salman Rushdie's next book after his fatwa-inducing The Satanic Verses.  If the fatwa impacted any aspect of The Moor's Last Sigh, it escaped me.  I was struck between similarities between this book and his recently published The Golden House- both books, ultimately, deal with the crimes of fathers and the way those crimes impact their families.  The setting her is the familiar Bombay and the less familiar Cochin, an ancient entrepot for the East-West spice trade, a seat for the Portuguese colonists and destination for several waves of Jewish immigrants- both those from Spain and Iraq.  The characters in The Moor's Last Sigh cover the gamut of familiar Indian ethnicity- but the major families are Portuguese-Catholic and Sephardic Jewish.  Like many of his Hindu and Muslim characters, there isn't anything specifically religious about these, other than the occasional use of a scenic religious spot for a locale or intervention of a religious authority figure in some minor way. 

 Morares Zogoiby narrates The Moor's Last Sigh- the only son of Jewish Abraham and Catholic Aurora.  Abraham, the factory clerk for Aurora's families spice warehouse. Zogoiby is an extraordinary character- with one club hand and the peculiar quality that he ages twice as fast as a normal person.   The characteristics are evidence that Rushdie has entered a baroque period in his fiction, where the details proliferate to the point where they almost obscure the larger design of his fiction.

  The Moor's Last Sigh is sprawling and panoramic, and I'm at a loss to consider a book written by Rushdie about India anything but.   At the same time, there are similarities between Midnight's Children, Shame and this book.  After his jaunt into heavy historical fiction resulted in a decade long death sentence, you can't blame a guy for making a strategic thematic retreat to less controversial areas, but two decades later it reads as less vital than his other books written before this one.

Morvern Callar (1995) by Alan Warner


Book Review
Morvern Callar (1995)]
 by Alan Warner

   Scottish fiction is over-represented in the 1990's portion of the first edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.   Morvern Callar is the name of the book and the narrator.  Warner set this and all his books in a place called "The Port" based on the town of Oban, on the west coast of Scotland.  Thus, Warner represented a sub-region of an already established regional literature. Like, I believe, all the other representative of Scottish fiction from this period on this list, Morvern Callar is a member of the Scottish underclassed, an orphan, raised by a railroad worker, who, at the beginning of the book, is working a dead end job at the local super-store, and living with her boyfriend, an independently wealthy aspiring novelist.

  Warner famously opens with Callar discovering the body of her boyfriend, who has killed himself as she slept. As one might expect of a young female character in a work of Scottish fiction, she deals with it a resourceful fashion, and the book goes on to tell a kind of hybrid bildungsroman/crime caper.  Morvern is an appealing character, and Warner doesn't overdo it on the Scottish slang/language.  At the same time it's hard to make a really principled distinction between Morvern Callar and better known books like Trainspotting, except to note that Morvern Callar is narrated by a woman and set outside of the major Scottish cities.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Ghost Road (1995) by Pat Barker



Book Review
The Ghost Road (1995)
by Pat Barker

  The Ghost Road is the final title in her Regeneration Trilogy, set during World War I and focusing on the treatment of shell-shocked/ptsd British soldiers during the war.   Barker won the 1995 Booker Prize for The Ghost Road and the Regeneration Trilogy is well equipped to find long-term canonical status as a representative of state-of-the-art historical fiction.

  It was quite a turn for Barker, who, in her own words was seen as a, "female, northern, working class" writer before she turned her hand to male characters and historical fiction.  Ironically, none of her earlier work made the 1001 Books list.  Calling the three books a "trilogy" stretches the term- there are some overlapping characters(pioneering psycho-analyst William Rivers), and certainly overlapping themes, but the trilogy tells three difference stories.  The Ghost Road switches between the present of closing stages of World War I, biographical reminisces of  private Billy Prior about his various sexual exploits, gay and straight, and lengthy flashbacks exploring the time William Rivers spent in Melanesia among a tribe of (former?) head hunters.

  I found the portions set in Melanesia to be particularly compelling.  The heavy gay theme was unexpected and wasn't part of Regeneration, the other book of the three that I've read.  Being gay in early 20th century England was a hanging offense, and many English found sexual liberation in the otherwise horrific circumstances of the trench warfare of World War I.

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