Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

The Public Burning (1977) by Robert Coover

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage in the 1950's.  
Book Review
The Public Burning (1977)
by Robert Coover

  Robert Coover is one of those author's who managed to secure a life on the strength of his writing.   He hasn't managed to secure one of the first tier literary awards and none of his titles have the kind of immortal hit status that seems likely to stand the test of time.  But, he's still alive and still writing books, so any kind of final judgment about his status as a canonical author will have to wait.

  The Public Burning is Coover's third novel and it's the now familiar combination of historical meta fiction, magical realism and fabulism.  In 2016, that combination of elements seemingly describes almost every major prize winning book of the last decade.  In 1975 it was still a novel combination.  The plot of The Public Burning is Coover's reworking of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.  The narrator is none other than Vice-President Richard Nixon.   Readers expecting the monstrous boogey man of the liberal imagination will be disappointed.  Coover's Nixon is a sensitive fellow trapped in a grown man's game.

   Checking in at 500 pages plus, The Public Burning is neither a light nor a fun read.  It is, however, comprehensible.  There is nothing remotely experimental about the form of the novel, with the exception of several "intermezzo's," interstitial chapters which feature various characters from the novel singing their lines in opera form.  It's almost better as a quirky Richard Nixon biography.  The Rosenbergs, seen also here in slightly disguised form in E.L. Doctorow's, The Book of Daniel are no longer the potent culture symbols they were in the mid 1970's.

  Reading it, I questioned whether The Public Burning was really worthy of the 1001 Books list, between the length, the diminished importance of the characters involved and the general dominance of the historical metafiction/magical realism/fabulist mode of story telling in the novel over the last several decades.   So I wasn't surprised to see that it was dropped from the revised edition of 1001 Books.  This leave the short story collection by Coover, Pricksongs and Descants as his sole title on the list.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Patterns of Childhood (1975) by Christa Wolf

Image result for christa wolf young
East German author represents both female German writers and East German writers on the 1001 Books list.
Book Review
Patterns of Childhood (1975)
by Christa Wolf

  I believe Christa Wolf fills the slot for "German language author active in the 1970's" within the 1001 Books list.  Patterns of Childhood is her bildungsroman about life in Hitler's Germany, first in the Polish area of Eastern Germany, later as a refugee in the West.   Wolf folds multiple narrative devices to enrich the depth of analysis a pre-teen/teen girl can bring to Hitler's Germany.   First, she uses a trip back to her now Polish childhood home as framing device, allowing her to describe the meat of the childhood narrative using an unusual 2nd person narrative for those flashbacks.

Second, she incorporates facts from her adult researching life under the Third Reich to establish specific propositions and dates within the childhood narrative.   Finally, she includes musings about the structure of the narrative by her, the author of the book.   The child/narrator does not have the same name as the author, and the narrator voice never specifically says "I am Christa Wolf" or gives any specific information about her adult life.

Here, all these techniques enliven the narrative and provide depth to the reading experience.   Which is good, because at 420 pages of translated German, Patterns of Childhood does not exactly jump off the shelf as a "fun read."  Wolf's childhood experience was roughly the same as that as Gunter Grass, from a different area of Polish Germany, although there is little in Patterns of Childhood that would mark her as a specifically East German author.

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