Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970) by Peter Handke

Still from the movie version of The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke.  Wim Wenders made the film.
Book Review
The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970)
by Peter Handke

  Welcome to the 1970's!!!  This 1001 Books Project has been a decade long odyssey, but now that I'm well into the 20th century it feels less like a project and more just like catching up on books I've always meant to read.  And catching up on books I never would have read without the 1001 Books project to spur me on.  Peter Handke is one of the most well known German authors of his generation, and he placed three books on the first version of the 1001 Books list.  In 2008, he was reduced to two titles, and The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick was the book that got cut.  The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is like a mixture of The Stranger and mid period Beckett, though Handke's Austrian nationality and tonal similarity makes comparisons to Kafka inevitable.

  In recent years, Handke's reputation has suffered due to his high spirited support for the war-criminal heavy Serbian government during their disastrous series of regional wars in the past decade.   He spoke at the funeral of Milosevic, in Serbian, and praised his regime.  Handke was and is extremely prolific, with dozens of books and plays, many of which been translated into English.  The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick was made into a film by Wim Wenders, and Handke later worked on the script for Wenders classic film, Wings of Desire.

   This all goes to explain why Peter Handke is on the 1001 Books list in the first place, and with three titles he's in Thomas Mann or Gunter Grass territory for a German writer on this list.  The 1001 Books editorial staff has certainly demonstrated that a support for fascist or totalitarian politics is no bar to inclusion on the list.

  The Goalie mentioned in the title is an ex-goalie, recently unemployed, who drifts through small town Germany, near the border of then East and West Germany.  He murders a woman after they have sex, for no reason at all.  Later he murders a clerk for similarly vague reasons and maintains an affect that could charitably be described as "blank" and uncharitably as psychotic.  The goalie isn't necessarily a bad guy, he just happens to murder two people as he is slowly losing his mind.  In one memorable scene, the goalie is reduced to thinking in symbols, unable to summon the words to describe his simple hotel room-dwelling.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Chocky (1968) by John Wyndham

Cover art from the 2015 re-issue of Chocky by John Wyndham, with a new foreword by Margaret Atwood
Book Review
Chocky (1968)
by John Wyndham

   John Wyndham occupies a solid third place on any list of mid 20th century English/British science fiction writers, firmly ensconced behind Arthur C. Clarke and J.G. Ballard.  If Clarke is the prophet of the future, and Ballard is the master of the alternative dystopian present, then Wyndham is the link to the past, the bridge between the proto-science fiction of H.G. Wells in War of the Worlds and Arthur C. Clarke in 2001.

  Like his other entry on the 1001 Books list, Day of the Triffids, Chocky is a short story lengthened out make a thin novel or novella.  Both books had their work in Wyndham's work as a writer of genre science fiction, and like the plant terrorized world of Triffids, Chocky features a memorable set up: A little boy visited by an imaginary friend who is apparently visiting from a highly advanced civilization in another galaxy.

    Wyndham elaborates this scenario with a minimum of fuss and bother- it's all very English of him, and this English-ness might just explain why he is so neglected compared to Clarke and Ballard.  Unlike those two, Wyndham doesn't have a modern day cult keeping his memory alive.  I can see where the editorial staff of 1001 Books would want him represented, but in the American market his popularity hovers between "out of print" and "recently reprinted but in a New York review of books paperback edition."   The New York Review of Books paperback reissue is a good guide to when a book is hovering at the margin of commercial viability, and also makes a prima facie case that the author in question is overlooked by big publishing.

   Like the book itself, the ending of Chocky is tied up in a neat, question answering bow, and in this regard it's a departure from the question provoking endings of other 60's English sci-fi classics.  I'm thinking of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, but also of Ballard's 60's stories.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Portnoy's Complaint (1969) by Philip Roth

Author Philip Roth
Book Review
Portnoy's Complaint (1969)
 by Philip Roth

   One major difference between 20th century literature in the United States and 20th century literature in England is the role of the Jewish protagonist.   Largely absent in England, America saw a stream of critically approved, popular writers, beginning with Henry Roth, then Saul Bellow(Canadian by birth, but still) and Philip Roth, who was first received wide spread public attention when Portnoy's Complaint was published in 1969.  

  Portnoy's Complaint is two hundred odd pages taking the form of the protagonist/narrator monologing to his Freud-style psychotherapist.  His major topics are 1) his mother/family, 2) his fondness for masturbation 3) his defunct relationship with a shiska girl who he calls "Monkey."  I think the argument could be made that even more than Woody Allen, Roth bears responsibility for the neurotic, sex-obsessed urban Jewish male stereotype taking root in popular western culture.  

    The sexual description in Portnoy's Complaint are noteworthy.  It was published a few years too late to really evoke the ire of censors, but it does have minor claims in that regard, such.  In 2016, Alexander Portnoy seems intimately familiar, another archetype that has inspired a generation of writers, actors and film makers.   You can probably also attribute the topic of masturbation as a subject of popular humor to the influence of Portnoy's Complaint, or rather the idea that smart people would find jokes about masturbation funny.   Roth's Alexander Portnoy is a virtuoso of masturbation, and he is not afraid to let his therapist hear about it.

Eva Trout (1968) by Elizabeth Bowen

Cover Art for the original hard back edition of Eva Trout (1968) by Elizabeth Bowen
Book Review
Eva Trout (1968)
by Elizabeth Bowen

    Eva Trout is the fifth of sixth books, in chronological order, which she placed in the initial edition of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  In the 2008 edition, she was reduced to three entries, reflecting the general trend of reduction for any Author with three or more titles in the first edition.   Eva Trout is one of the three keepers, and that probably comes from it's status as the best version of "late Bowen."  Eva Trout is nothing more or less than a serious literary novel about an awkward young heiress and her convoluted effort to purchase and raise a disabled child.  That one sentence plot summary does a gross disservice to the complex way in which Bowen develops the plot.  Instead of using the conventional modernist technique of moving back and forth in time without signaling the reader, she structures Eva Trout as a series of episodes separated in time and space, without any connective tissue to tell you what has happened in the interim.

  Mostly, the reader is left to guess at the motives of Trout and the other characters- calling them friends does not do justice to the complexity of the relationship between Eva Trout, the parent-less heiress, and the various parties who have been recruited to raise her in the absence of either parent.  Trout is a cipher, and Bowen explains nothing to the reader, leaving us to speculate at her poorly explained motives, and, what, in fact, is going one.

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