Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964) by Donald Barthelme

The short story The Joker's Greatest Triumph is based on Batman 148, published in 1962
Book Review
Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964)
 by Donald Barthelme

  Many of the techniques of literary post-modernism were developed by Donald Barthelme.  Come Back, Dr. Caligari was the first of his short story collections, but basically, any short fiction that you are likely to read in the New Yorker or Harpers or wherever one encounters short fiction today (McSweeneys?) the author is likely to owe a creative debt to Barthelme and this collection.

   Bathelme oscillates between the sublime and the incomprehensible. I will say that the more incomprehensible stuff appears to pay a direct tribute to the James Joyce of Finnegan's Wake and the later work of Samuel Beckett.   The sublime in this volume is represented by the most well known of these tales, The Joker's Greatest Triumph, which features Batman and his alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, along with an old chum who happens to be over for drinks on a Tuesday night when the bat-signal goes off.

  The Joker's Greatest Triumph is Donald Barthelme in a nut-shell, fusing an appreciation of pop culture with the techniques of literary modernism. The more esoteric, experimental pieces are tolerable because not a single story in this collection exceeds twenty amply margined pages. 

The Vice Consul (1965) by Marguerite Duras

A young Marguerite Duras
Book Review
The Vice Consul (1965)
by Marguerite Duras

  I have a complicated relationship with the European colonial experience in the 19th and 20th century.  As a democratic American citizen, I'm of course appalled.  As a vacationing citizen of the world, the "colonial experience" is a short-hand for an appealing vacation, i.e. luxurious restored mansions, plentiful staff on hand to cater to your whims,  As a student of 20th century history, I'm appalled by the vacationing citizen of the world, who views European colonialism through an aesthetic gaze, instead of confronting the terrible realities of colonialism.

  But honestly, besides learning the story of the oppressed, what can you do?  Make sure one vacations where the locals aren't being horribly exploited, but beyond that, the European colonial experience is in the past, and the only way to access it is through the literature of 20th century Europe.  Marguerite Duras drew heavily on her Asian experiences in her oeuvre.  The Vice Consul is set in India, not Vietnam and the characters are mostly English, though the Vice Consul and his whore wife are French.

    Unlike her other books on the 1001 Books list, the sex in The Vice Consul stays in the background- no explicit fondling of girl-flesh to be had here.  Duras interweaves the story of a disgraced Cambodian beggar woman into the more conventional tale of bored European colonials and their whispered about sex capades.  The portion dealing with the Cambodian beggar is the first time I can remember a European writer tackling the experience of a member of the Asian peasantry. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Manon des Sources (1962) by Marcel Pagnol

Emmanuelle Beart played the title character of Manon des Sources in the movie version of the book.

Book Review
Manon des Sources (1962)
 by Marcel Pagnol

  Manon des Sources is the second book in a two book series that includes Jean de Florette.  Both books tell the multi-generational sage of a small French village in the hills near Marseille (i.e. "the south of France")  Both books were adapted into films made by Marcel Pagnol himsel, wth Gerard Depardieu playing the tragic hump-backed farmer of the first movie and Emannuele Beart playing his grown daughter in the second movie.
Jean de Florette streaming on Youtube for free

   Even the editor who chose this book acknowledges that Pagnol is "deeply unfashionable," as of 2006.  Nothing has changed in the decade since.  In 2016, you can watch Jean de Florette for free on You Tube, as clear a sign as any that no one is making enough money on the property to bother with You Tube take down notices.   The curious editorial choice to include the second but not first book in the series means that you either have to look up the plot of the first book or just pick it up as you go along.

  It isn't hard to follow Manon des Sources without Jean de Florette but it seems to me that you'd either read both or neither.  To their credit, the editors have stuck with their original decision, neither removing Manon des Source from subsequent editions nor adding Jean de Florette.   Perhaps Manon des Sources is included because it is a deeply satisfying tale of revenge for a wrong that is exhaustively detailed in the first book.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Girls of Slender Means (1963) by Muriel Spark

Author Muriel Spark
Book Review
The Girls of Slender Means (1963)
 by Muriel Spark

   Muriel Spark started with four titles in the 2006 edition of 1001 Books, after the 2008 revision she was reduced to two titles, this one, and The Prime of Ms. Brodie.    Muriel Spark sits on the border of "light" and "serious" fiction.  The Prime of Ms. Brodie was an out-and-out mass market hit and my sense is that critical acclaim followed her popular success.  It's difficult to imagine Spark being read in a college literature course, leaving her  a contemporary audience  of fans of 20th century English literature and fans of "light" literature.

  Despite the airy appearance of The Girls of Slender Means, it carries substantial allegorical weight.  According to the 1001 Books editorial entry, The Girls of Slender Means is a reworking of the Gerald Manley Hawkins poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland.  An audio recording by one of the slender girls reading the poem is a prominent plot point in this book, so it's not Spark hides the ball exactly, but you'd have to know the poem to get any kind of connection between the two.

  The title refers to a young woman's boarding house, the time is London at the very end of World War II, and just after.  The framing narrative involves one of the former housemates researching the life of a young intellectual who has just been "martyred" as a Catholic missionary in Haiti.  In the process, she considers the events immediately prior to the destruction of the house at the hands of some unexploded ordinance.

  If you don't catch the extended reference to The Wreck of the Deutschland, the setting o war time London is enough to keep you occupied for the 167 pages of this novella.  Not a very good money value if you were looking to buy a copy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee

Harper Lee
Book Review
To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
by Harper Lee

    Harper Lee is the most successful artist of all time.  She wrote...one book...it's one of the most popular AND critically acclaimed novels of all time, and it is essentially taught in every school in the United States, and read world-wide.  The very idea that an author could write a single novel and be set for life is itself novel.  Even successful authors never sold enough books to never NEED to work again.  In that way, Harper Lee is the beginning of the rock star economy, the blockbuster economy, where single works of art could provide a livelihood for one or more people over a period of decades.

  Lee's recent death, and the nearly contemporaneous decision to publish what was essentially an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird as a "new" work, also represents an opportunity to look at the role of the publishing industry itself in the fashioning of Lee's tremendous success.  One revelation from Go Set a Watchman is that the original book that Lee wrote was a much darker iteration of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Specifically, Scout was not the narrator.   Having an admittedly precious nine year old girl narrate this dark tale of race and justice in the deep south was a decision that was forced by the publisher.   That is an excellent example of the positive role that the art-industrial complex played in the history of arts and letters.



Sunday, March 13, 2016

The River Between (1965) by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Ngugi wa Thiong'o is one of the best known members of the Kikuyu ethnic group of Kenya


The River Between (1965)
 by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

   Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is one of those authors who is a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature (which doesn't actually reveal their decision process, so it's just speculation), presumably on the strength of his overall output and lifetime of political activism in Kenya.  He did a year in prison!  Thiong'o is also an important figure in the movement to "decolonize" literature.  His early works, including this one, were written in English, but he deliberately abandoned the English language in favor of his native Gikuyu.  Ethnically, he is Kikuyu, the largest single ethnic group in Kenya, although they are only 20 percent of the total population.  The  Agĩkũyũ, as they were known, were a significant non-subjugated people, even though the coast of Kenya had long been a preferred port of Arab slave traders and merchants.

   The culture of Kikuyu independence provides the back drop to the events of The River Between, which show Kikuyu culture in the process of assimilation to Christian religion, but prior to any kind of interference from actual Western governments.  The River Between takes place in the early 20th century and the action is centered on two adjoining Kikuyu villages.  One becomes the center of pro-Christian Kikuyu, the other the center of anti-Western sentiment.   The focus of action is Waiyaki, who is actually the son of the last tribal leader to (unsuccessfully) call for armed resistance to white missionaries.  Waiyaki is sent to the mission school, but told to keep his heart with his people.  After finishing his education, he returns to the village to set up their first school.

  Meanwhile, tensions rise between the Christian and Animist villagers.  Thiong'o does an excellent job of demonstrating the conflicting loyalties that were a prominent feature of the African colonial experience.   Modern readers may be put off by the centrality of female circumcision, or "female genital mutilation" as it is called today, to the plot of The River Between.


Journey to the End of the Night (1932) by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

Louis-Ferdinand Celine, forerunner of Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski.

Book Review
Journey to the End of the Night (1932)
 by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

   Before there was Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski, there was Louis-Ferdinand Celine.   Celine was also, regrettably, a rabid anti-Semite who was firmly committed to the Nazi cause in World War II AND after- eventually being convicted in abstentia of being a collaborator with the Nazis.  Celine's place in the literary canon is still debated.  He was famously included then excluded from a list of "500 French intellectuals" compiled by the French government itself.

  His widow, still alive at the age of 103, has ensured that his most rabidly anti-Semetic tracts are out of print and he's kind of a poster child for the impact that extremely non-p.c. believes can have on an artistic legacy.  Unlike many other authors I've not read in the 1001 Books project, I know exactly why I hadn't read Journey to the End of the Night before now: It's because Louis-Ferdinand Celine is a Nazi, more or less.  

  But now I'm quite clear on the philosophy of pardoning artists for moral flaws that would otherwise put them beyond the pale of polite society.  Being a Nazi may be more offensive than living as a unrepentant degenerate or heroin addicted trust-funder, but only as a matter of degree.  The direct and obvious comparison is to American author Henry Miller.   Like Miller, Celine directly confronted the reality of life on the margins of Western society in the 1920s and 30s.  Topics like venereal disease, back alley abortions and the ugliness of 20th century racism are put front and center to the reader.

   Journey to the End of the Night squarely fits into the literary genre of 'bildungsroman' or "coming of age story,"  but it represents the negative image of what that genre typically represents.  A fun house mirror, if you will.   Like so many other 20th century anti-heroes, Ferdinand Bardamu is deeply imbued with an existentialist philosophy before such a thing existed.   Bardamu isn't a thoughtful intellectual, but he isn't a thug, either.   He starts out in the army during World War I, finds his way to Africa, where he has some memorable adventures, makes his way to America for a year or so, and returns to France, where he becomes an unsuccessful doctor.

   There is also a kind of negative double to Bardamu, his "frenemy" Leon Robinson, whom he meets first on the battlefields of Belgium, where Robinson is trying to get himself captured by the Germans.  They renew acquaintances in America and after Bardamu returns to France, Robinson ends up becoming a focal point of Bardamu's existence.   This relationship between Bardamu and Robinson more or less constitutes the plot of Journey to the End  of the Night, but like Miller and Kerouac, the atmosphere is more of interest than any overarching narrative.

   Once you get past Celine's unrepentant, explicitly pro-Nazi Antisemitism (or if, I guess) it's clear that Journey to the End of the Night is an early classic of 20th century existentialist


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