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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Dusklands (1974) by J.M. Coetzee

18th century engraving of the Hottentots, a major player in early white/African relations in Southern Africa
Book Review
Dusklands (1974)
by J.M. Coetzee

   There is a good argument that J.M. Coetzee is the single author who best represents the spirit of the original 2006 edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.   First, there are the total number of novels that he placed in the first edition: 10.  Second, there are the total number of novels that he lost in the initial 2008 revised edition: 5.   Thus, whatever impact the editors were going for in 2006 involved putting 10 Coetzee titles on their list, and two years later they decided that half his books weren't good enough to keep.   This is a ratio that is roughly in line with other authors who had four or more titles on the first list- they usually lose about half of them in the 2008 edition.

  Third, there are his characteristics as a writer- biographical and stylistic.  He writes in English, but he's not from England (South Africa), he employs techniques that can be easily characterized as "post-modern" but  his novels are never experimental.    Finally, he wrote in the last part of the twentieth century.   The 1001 Books list is strongly biased towards the 20th century, and the middle and end of that century in particular.   Just looking at the statistic generated by this blog- I'm at 546 titles.  Add about 50 titles for books that I'd already read and some pre-18th century titles I skipped- that gets it to 600.   Dusklands was published in 1974.   That means from roughly 1970 to the publication date of 2006, forty percent of the 1001 Books you need to read before you die were published.

  I'm positive there were some pragmatic reasons to cram so many titles from the near-past and actual present onto the list.  You want books that people can actually buy, you wants books that people have heard of and are interested in reading.   Books from the recent past and present are more interesting to the general reader than older books.  I understand why, but I suspect my own thousand novel list would reduce the number of contemporary works of fiction by about 100 to include some non-novels and works from the major religions.  I'm not religious, but it seems to me that books from the major world religions like the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, etc. should be included.  They also left poetry entirely out of the project- which seems insane.  Also, no Shakespeare. And then I'd add in more books from the 19th century golden age of the novel.

  Dusklands was Coetzee's first published novel, and it's actually more like a pair of novellas which share a thematic link.  The first part deals with an American scientist working on a project about the Vietnam war for the government.  He goes nuts and stabs his infant son, winds up in an insane asylum.

  The second part, far more compelling, is a fictionalization of a "Heart of Darkness" style trek into the African veldt by a purported ancestor of Coetzee- at least they share the same name.  The second half, called The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee is recognizably a post-modern historical novel(la).  Coetzee is presented as a real historical figure, to the point of including a post-script with his contemporaneous declaration of the geographical discoveries of his expedition.    After staking out his claim as an early Dutch settler of the African interior, the Narrative takes place as Coetzee sets out to the north in search of elephants.

  Along the way, he encounters native tribesman- who still live independent lives, unsubjugated by western powers- and falls ill.   During his long convalescence, all his possessions are stolen, and when he recovers, his "slaves" abandon him to remain with the native village.  During his harrowing return home, his only remaining loyal servant dies fording a seasonal river, and he returns home alone.

   A year later, he returns with some soldiers and exacts his revenge.  That's the whole of the narrative, and it resembles The Heart of Darkness in more ways than one, but it's different, being written by an actual African in a way that has an actual connection with the people.  I'm not sure that Dusklands would have made the list if it had not been Coetzee's first published novel.  Specifically, the combination of the two disparate narratives seems more like the coupling of two separately written novellas then any grand plan.

  Personally, I'm very interested in narratives about colonialism and I think that is a common concern for anyone who reads literature.  It's impossible to put aside the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature, the two separate Booker wins, and the fact that he is one of a handful of serious authors who you can find in any airport book shop.  Finally, Dusklands is under 130 pages from start to finish, so the time commitment is minimal.

  J.M. Coetzee is an excellent example of a canonical author who is still active.  He actually has a book coming out next month, The Schooldays of Jesus.  The release of a new work by a living artist who has already obtained canonical status is the most significant event in the entire cultural industrial complex.  The reason these events are so important is because of the small number of living artists who have obtained canonical status while they are still active.

  For an author with a place in the canon, it is entirely fair to ask whether the new work is the best book the author has written, or better than his canonical works.   Any criticism of the existence of a specific canon ignores the fact that an artist obtaining canonical status for a specific work is the single best thing they can do for their career.  The canon is the blessed intersection between art and commerce and the question of which works for canonical artists is of high importance.

Book Review: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974) by Heinrich Böll

Book Review:
 The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974)
 by Heinrich Böll

    Heinrich Böll won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, so The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum came when the author was at the top of his game, so to speak.  Böll had impeccable anti-Nazi credentials, and in this way he was the right type of writer to help recover the German literary tradition from Nazism.  Like  Billiards at Half-Past Nine, Böll's first title to make it into the 1001 Books List, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum combines personal narrative with technical innovation and timely social issues.

 Here, Katharina Blum is a self-employed domestic from a troubled family, living in a small town in Western Germany.  She spends the night with a criminal being followed by the police, she helps him escape, and the police make her a subject of their investigation.  Then the newspapers get involved, and it is the conflict between the freedom of the press and it's impact on Ms. Blum that lies at the heart of this short novel/novella.

  For an American reader, the idea of a critique of the freedom of press almost sounds radical.  Germany, where pro-Nazi speech has been illegal since the end of World War II, is a much different society in that regard. Böll's Katharina Blum is an existential heroine in the mode of  French novels from the 1950's.   This combination of a trenchant critique of freedom of the press and a generally sympathetic attitude towards 70's leftist radicals in Germany may make modern readers uncomfortable.  On the other hand, you could say these attitudes of the German left from the 1970's are in vogue again, so maybe Katherina is due for a revival.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) by J.G. Ballard

Book Review
The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)
by J.G. Ballard

   The Atrocity Exhibition showcases the more experimental side of J.G. Ballard.  The book is comprised of a series of previously published short stories which are "linked" through overlapping sets of characters.   Calling each of the chapters a "short story" isn't very accurate, it's more like a series of thematically related prose experiments in the style of Burroughsian cut-up or the formal prose experiments of mid 20th century French authors like Bataille, Perec and Queneau.  There are also echoes of William Burroughs more coherent passages in Naked Lunch and Ballard's own pioneering dystopia's of the 1960;s.

  Many of the chapters echo the plot of Crash, which was published in 1972- the same years as Grove Press published The Atrocity Exhibition in the United States (the 1970 publication date is in the U.K.)  It's clear from the thematic similarity of his collected stories: obsessed with the relationship between sex, death and consumer culture, that Ballard had a recognizable aesthetic as early as the mid 1960's. Ballard may have been the first writer of speculative fiction to take an antagonistic stance towards the future chances of the human species. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Giles Goat-Boy (1965) by John Barth

Book Review
Giles Goat-Boy (1965)
by John Barth

  John Barth himself called Giles Goat-Boy the first "meta-fictional" novel.  A half-century later, it's hard to imagine anyone caring enough about which was the "first" meta-fictional novel to debate the claim.   Amazingly, Giles Goat-Boy was not just a critical but also a commercial success, i.e. best-seller list, mass-media coverage, book-of-the-month level marketing.  Today, that commercial success is hard to imagine.  I can only surmise it was a combination of several "right place, right time" factors having to do with the plot (an elaborate cold war allegory set on a fictional "campus" that took the place of the world), the style (learned in a way that was comprehensible to an college-level audience) and the novelty of some of the meta-fictional techniques to a mid 1960's American audience.

   Today, Giles Goat-Boy is hardly read, even by people who have read John Barth.  Having now read this 710 page book (in hardback) I can now safely opine that there are many reasons for Giles Goat-Boy having fallen out of favor with critical and popular audiences.  First, there is the heavy handed Cold War/Campus allegory which dominates the narrative.  You can't hope to follow the allegory without a thorough understanding of the struggle of East and West in the Cold War.   The relevance of this allegory in it's Cold War context is debatable two decades after the conclusion of the Cold War.

The second part of the allegory is the equation of the Campus of the novel with the entire world.  This is likely to appeal most to audiences that think that the culture of the university campus is the center of the cultural/intellectual world.  This attitude was wide-spread, and expanding in 1965, the year Giles Goat-Boy was published.  Today, that world of the university has much less universal appeal.

 Loosely put, Giles Goat-Boy is about the eponymous hero doing his Joseph Campbell Power of Myth style meta-quest towards spiritual and temporal power.  This takes the form of his progress from a human child literally raised by goats by a professor who has been banished from the main university to the role of the "Grand Tutor" a Christ-figure whose manifestation is a apocalypse triggering event for the world of the campus.

  Upon the way he does the typical thing a hero does in a Western hero quest: he has to solve impossible problems, have sex with a sister he doesn't know is his sister, meet his parents and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.  The villain in Giles Boat-Boy is an evil ENIAC style computer called WESCAC that may or may not be Giles father.   Perhaps the theme that provides the most enduring interest to a modern reader is the role of computers and technology as a force for evil.

  Writing before the computer era had properly begun, Barth correctly inferred the dehumanizing impact of turning over much of our decision making process over to machines.  It's a well traveled theme in 2016, but in 1965, not so much.

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