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Friday, February 06, 2015

The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1(1930) by Robert Musil

Book Review
The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1(1930)
 by Robert Musil

   The Man Without Qualities is two volumes, the first, 720 pages long, the second, over a thousand pages and unfinished.  Volume One consists of two books and volume two of a third book.  The Man Without Qualities is one of those books that haunts the precincts of 20th century literature enthusiasts, occupying a space somewhere between the "late realist classic symbolist" work of Thomas Mann and the stranger musings of Franz Kafka.  Unlike The Confusions of Young Torless (1906), which is an intimate portrayal of a high school age youth, The Man Without Qualities is a grand drama on the scale of The Magic Mountain, with equal parts character development and philosophical musings.

   I think the thoughts that cross the mind of anyone who has heard of The Man Without Qualities  and is considering reading it are first, do you have to read it at all? Second: Can you get away with only reading one volume?  For the latter question the answer is yes, one volume certainly does suffice.  The second volume revolves mostly around a sister who is not featured in the second volume at all, and the first volume ends on no kind of a cliff hanger.  As to the former question, I would say probably not.  Especially if you've read The Magic Mountain and other works of late realism.  While I finished The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1 satisfied, there were moments where Musil resembles nothing so more as an Austrian Anthony Trollope or Theodore Dreiser, flailing at the onset of modernity with a luddite mace.

   The pace of the narrative is glacial for the first six hundred pages, and only in the last hundred and twenty does the reader get anything resembling a spark: first the description by one character of her attempted seduction by her own father, and then the revelation that a critical character is motivated to be involved in the central charitable endeavor by his desire to access the "coal fields of Galacia." Although firmly a work of the twentieth century, with character who use automobiles and telephones, the tint of the 19th century "novel of ideas" is well ingrained The Man Without Qualities.

  I would say that if you are a reader nostalgic for 19th century fiction vs. 20th century, The Man Without Qualities is a must on the list.  Budget at least a month for the first volume and longer for the second.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Movie Review: Under the Volcano (1984) d. John Huston

Albert Finney as British Counsel Geoffrey Firman in the John Huston directed movie version of Under the Volcano by Malcom Lowry.

Movie Review:
 Under the Volcano (1984)
 d. John Huston
Criterion Collection #410

  I read a recently published paperback version of the Malcolm Lowry novel while on vacation in Mexico over the holiday.  I was taken, as indeed, are many who read the book, by the bleak portrayal of "self-destructive" British Consul Geoffrey Firman.  He is played in the movie by Albert Finney, who received an Oscar nomination for best lead actor.  Finney's visceral portrayal of a man who is quickly drinking himself to death brings a certain energy to the proceedings that is shocking even if you have recently read the book.

 This performance makes up for the tampering with a plot that is very much concerned with rhythm and structure.  Huston goes so far to as change the ending of the book, where both Firman and his wife die in separate events around the same time, to simply having Firman die and the wife cradle him in her arms as he expires from the gun shots he suffers at the hands of Mexican fascist.  The "all in one day" format is just as suitable for the movie as it is for the book, and it left me wondering why people said that Under the Volcano was an "unfilmable" book.  Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon- those are examples of really unfilmable books.  Under the Volcano takes place in 24 hours and has three main characters.  You could make it into a play.


Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Berlin Stories (1935, 1939) by Christopher Isherwood

Liza Minnelli plays Sally Bowles in the 1972 film Cabaret, based on Isherwood's twin novellas.

Berlin Stories
The Last of Mr. Norris (1935)
Goodbye to Berlin (1939)
 by Christopher Isherwood

   Important thing to keep in mind is that the 1001 Books Project counts Berlin Stories as TWO separate titles- The Last of Mr. Norris (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939) but the standard American edition published by New Directions publishes both novellas in one volume called Berlin Stories.  Technically, this double edition does not exist as an entry in the 1001 Books project but contains two titles that do.

  In the public mind, the most indelible image from Berlin Stories is that of Liza Minnelli playing Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse's 1972 film.  You know the image I'm talking about (see above.)   Bowles, while not exactly a bit player in the context of the entire Berlin Stories, is hardly a dominant focus.  Rather, Isherwood is himself the main character, drifting around the margins of the Berlin underworld in the pre-Hitler Weimar Republic as an underemployed English tutor and active gay man. 

  Berlin Stories is a curious progenitor of gay literature in that entirely admits any description of male or female homosexuality, although many of the characters and situations are obviously gay,  being gay is never actually mentioned.  Hard to blame Isherwood- homosexuality was a hanging offense in the United Kingdom until AFTER World War II.  From that perspective, Berlin Stories are incredibly brave, since Isherwood is so recognizably gay in the book.

  In addition to the well drawn gay and non-gay characters, there is the setting of Weimar Republic Berlin, which was later to become synonymous with early 20th century decadence. Thus, Berlin Stories is itself a central document of this place and time.

Monday, February 02, 2015

One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (History of the American West) by Collin G. Calloway

One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark
 (History of the American West)
 by Collin G. Calloway
University of Nebraska Press
p. 2003

  One Vast Winter Count is an able synthesis of a half-century of good work in the field of "Western American history."  This field has been marked indelibly by three unmistakable trends: ignorance of Native Americans, "discovery" of Native American history and integration of Native and European perspectives in narrating the history of the West.  The "Native American West" of the title refers not just to the greater Western United States, but also includes practically all of the United States east of the original thirteen colonies including the Midwest and and South East and what would today be Northern Mexico.

  The major development in this field between 1950 and today is a greater understanding of Native archeological sites like the Chaco Canyon complex, Cahokia/Monks mound outside of St. Louis, and other "mound" sites of the present South Eastern United States.  A thorough understanding of these locations and their representation of a complex Native civilization happening during the European Middle Ages was retarded by some of the trends listed above- notably an insistence that the archeological sites in North America were made by some culture OTHER than the ancestors of the tribes present after European contact.

 In one sense, it's true, because the experience of the Spanish traipsing through the Southern United States in the sixteenth century was itself enough to set off an epidemic of disease and warfare among the cultures who were themselves three centuries removed from the large civilizations of Cahokia and the South Eastern United States. 

  Thus, by the time the 17th century rolled around, the European powers were playing on a field that had already been drastically altered.  Calloway presents a coherent narrative of the time between the "fall" of the great culture complexes of the Native American Middle Ages and the gradual integration of the European experience- it happened over centuries, to rebut many of the stereotypes and misunderstanding about the contact between tribes and Europeans.   American education embraces the losers without acknowledging that there were Native winners who thrived and expanded for centuries after European contact.  The final subjugation of Native tribes was largely confined to the very end of the 19th century- an almost half millennium period between first contact and final "victory."

  This rewriting of the typical "conquest" narrative of books like Diamond's best seller, Guns, Germs and Steel is loooonngggggg over due, and someone seeking a coherent synthesis in recent developments in the field of pre-European North American history would be well obliged to check out One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West Before Lewis and Clark (History of the American West) by Collin G. Calloway.

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