Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Platform (novel) (2001) by Michel Houellebecq

Book Review
Platform (novel) (2001)
 by Michel Houellebecq

   I hate myself for loving Houellebecq, but I can't help it.  His bleak existenialism and grasp of consumer society jargon (in translation, no less) transcends the French setting.  Surely among the greatest of mysteries is the way an author can maintain status as a prose stylist in translation.  It must be a credit to the translator, but here, Houellebecq actually writes in a kind of hybrid language, with English language words included amongst the French.

  Platform is about a French civil servant who falls into a relationship with the assistant of a succesful business man in charge of marketing tourism in France. Valerie is her name.  Valerie is more than an assistant, and she and her boss make a quick move to a large hospitality conglomerate seeking to resuscitate a recently purchased chain of Club Med style all inclusive resorts.

  It should surprise anyone with the least familiarity with Houellebecq's oeuvre that Platform contains a lot of explicit sex, rendered in most non-pornographic tones.   Houellebecq sets up a satisfying denouement that calls into question his critcs- who often castigate him for encouraging anti-Muslim sentiment.   My take is that Houellebecq has trenchant things to say about French society, and French critics don't like it, and they don't understand the point he's trying to make.  Or maybe they do and they are afraid he's right. 

Youth: Scenes from a Provincial Life (2002) J.M. Coetzee

Book Review
Youth: Scenes from a Provincial Life II(2002)
J.M. Coetzee

  Part of the unique appeal of being a succesful novelist is that you can stand apart from your artistic identity in a way that is difficult to impossible for people like actors and musicians.  Literature is not immune to the fame fairy, particularly in places like France, where writers of fiction can become first class public intellectuals.  England, too, the United States, not so much.  More notable are canonical 20th century authors who have maintained total anonymity, J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon being good examples of that type.

  Before he began to publish his three part Scenes from a Provincial Life, Coetzee was more of the later than former, his Provincial Life trilogy established his actual, personal identity.  The province in question is South Africa, particularly Boer South Africa, where Coetzee was raised by parents who he has willfully left behind, at the beginning of Youth, to make his own way through university.   Before long, Coetzee has made his way to London, where he tried to balance a career (and contingent residence visa) as a computer programmer with his artistic aspirations.   Young Coetzee takes Ezra Pound as his lode-star, and references to the business career of T.S. Eliot are frequent.

   Coetzee, like Paul Auster, is one of those late 20th century authors who simply swamped the last few decades of the 1001 Books list, even including such an obviously secondary work like Youth.  I kept trying to understand what his parents did to him, he never explains.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair

Image result for the jungle sinclair
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is still frequently read in American schools as an example of "muckraking" progressive journalism. 
Book Review
The Jungle (1906)
by Upton Sinclair

  Not sure when I read The Jungle.  I want to say junior high.  I'm sure there is some alternate universe where Upton Sinclair somehow managed to win the governorship of California in 1930, maybe in that universe socialists were actually succesful.  In fact, in this universe, The Jungle is an example of how socialist-radical ideas can be co-opted by the mainstream.  Written as a call to socialism, The Jungle had the impact of leading the existing political parties to pass the Food and Drug Act, some of the first public-health protections for the food supply in the United States, no socialism required.

  The nut shell description of The Jungle is that it exposes conditions in the packing houses in Chicago, but really, that only covers about a fifth of the length, nearly five hundred pages in print and a thirteen hour audio book.   Jurkus Rudkus is the protagonist, the narrator, it would seem, is the author, writing in the high omniscient narrator style of 19th century fiction.  Rudkus, a strapping farm hand from Lithuania, quickly emigrates to America when he hears about high wages (no one mentions the equally high prices), he and an extended family of women and children (of the 12 mentioned in the immigrant party he is the only working age man, which seems a trifle unusual if you know anything about actual migration patterns to the US in that period) settle in the stock yards of Chicago, where he quickly finds work on the slaughterhouse floor.

  He can't KEEP the job though, within the book, only four or five scenes are actually set in the slaughterhouse.   Then Jurkus gets hurt, loses his job and ends up assaulting the plant foreman after he forces Rudkus' wife into prostitution.  When Rudkus leaves the slaughterhouse for good, the book is barely begun, and what follows is a kind of horrific picaresque about life in turn of the century America.

   One of the aspects of listening to an audio book is that you don't really skip or skim anything- giving the listener plenty of time to think about what is happening in the book.  Here, I found myself wondering why a bunch of peasants from Lithuania had such a hard time in a Chicago winter.  Aside from a reference to the fact that the houses in Lithuania are reinforced with mud, you would think this bunch of immigrants came from Jamaica, so horrific is the impact of the cold on their lives.  Sinclair repeatedly hammers home how woefully naive and exploitable are his poor characters, but you think, at least, they would have some useful skills for surviving in cold weather, or be used to it, because, you know, Lithuania is cold.

  Towards the end Rudkus falls in with socialists, and the last fifty or so pages are a series of speeches about socialism is so great. Early 20th century socialists tend to get a past since they didn't know about how things would go down in the Soviet Union. Looking back, even leftists can say that state run socialism tends to be a bit of a disaster.  That leaves you with "meat processing in early 20th century America was disgusting."  Point taken.

On Beauty (2005) by Zadie Smith

Image result for young zadie smith
English author Zadie Smith
Book Review
On Beauty (2005)
 by Zadie Smith

  1001 Books to Read Before You Die was published in 2006, but the cut-off for included titles was 2005, meaning that On Beauty is one of the last books on the first edition list.   You'd have to be a cretin to not see the charm in On Beauty, a loose take on Howard's End by E.M. Forster.   Smith's version features two families, the first being Howard Belsey, a white Englishman, married to his African-American wife, Kiki.  They have three kids, all of whom identify as African American .  The other family is the Kipps'- Monty Kipps, a black Englishman and his Afro-Caribbean wife Carlene.

  Both patriarch's are professors of art history, Kipps a fashionably (or unfashionably) conservative Christian who has sold a million copies of his Rembrandt treatise and inveighs against affirmative action.  Howard, an almost stereotypical post-modernist, an art professor who hates beauty.  The lives of them and their children become intertwined when Kipps accepts a visiting professorship at the university where Howard is seeking tenure.

  As I said, you'd have to be a cretin not to see the charm in On Beauty, which is more or less what you call a "campus novel" with an incredibly close up focus on the world of faculty tenure.   The campus novel has been largely excluded from the 1001 Books list, Smith likely managed to sneak in on the basis of charm and wit.  I wasn't totally won over- I regret reading the ebook version.  On Beauty clocks in at around 450 pages in print, and I've come to the conclusion that 300 pages is optimal, and any ebook over 350 pages turns into a chore.

  I gather that unwieldiness is part of the charm of Zadie Smith.  I'm interested to read more of her books, but I'm not sure that On Beauty would be the one I would recommend to a would-be reader.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis

Disney Main Street

Book Review
Main Street (1920)
 by Sinclair Lewis

   Between 2003 and 2005 I read extensively in American history, especially focusing on the period between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War II.   Many of the skips in the 1001 Books list from this time period- the early twentieth century- are novels I read during this period.  Sinclair Lewis is a must, and Main Street, along with Babbitt, are his two major works, both revolving around the smallness of small-town American life in the early 20th century.  Sinclair Lewis, of course, was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1930, and in their announcement the Committee referenced Main Street.

  Sinclair Lewis is also one of the first canonical authors who actually won a Nobel Prize in Literature, which gave out it's first award in 1901.  The first thirty years are filled with forgotten writers and a TON of writers from Scandinavia.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that Main Street is set in a small town outside of the twin cities in Minnesota, a heavily Swedish/Danish/German area of settlement.   At 441 pages, Main Street is not what you could call a light read.  The first time I read it, I read a paperback thrift edition, perhaps even purchased used, and I remember a leaden reading experience.

  This time, I listened to an audio book, with one voice, a male voice, who "does" all the different character voices, including the dialogue of Carol Milford, the small-town Madame Bovary wannabe that lies at the heart of Main Street. Main Street is satire, which means that no one is likable, including Carol who spends perhaps half of the book agonizing over her fate in small-town America as a comfortable house frau of a country doctor.

  The audio book, 16 hours long, gave me plenty of time to dwell on the stylistic failing of Lewis as a prose stylist.  I'd be prepared to make an extended case that Main Street is at least 50 pages too long- Lewis includes lengthy segments about subsidiary characters late in the book in a way that has nothing to do with the earlier story, except as those characters exist within that universe.  The 16 hours of audio equates to about 450 pages, so it isn't even that long, but man oh man does it feel like it, particularly since Lewis is going far, far, far out of his way to make everyone sound as tedious as humanly possible.

   I can't help but think of Disney Land's Main Street- Disney Land in Anaheim opened in 1955, Walt Disney must have been cognizant of this book.  You could say that the Disney version is a kind of answer to Lewis' dark portrayal.  Lewis did, in fact, coin the phrase "Main Street," so the Disney version does relate to his novel.

  I couldn't remember a thing about the story, despite the fact that I have the book on my shelf and even have some notes in the margins.  The smug disdain expressed by Sinclair Lewis for small town American life is still active today, it's EXACTLY the kind of bias that Trump plugs into with rural voters, and it is still worth reading today just for that the reason- the insight it gives into the world of the mentalite of small town, rural America. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Austerlitz (2001) by W.G. Sebald

Book  Review
Austerlitz (2001)
 by W.G. Sebald

  Published just a month before W.G. Sebald died in an auto accident, Austerlitz was his last novel.  One of the major consequences of the unexpected demise of a Nobel Prize in Literature level talent is that it forecloses the opportunity to actually win the Nobel Prize in Literature, since none of the Nobel's are awarded posthumously.  Austerlitz, I think, is an impressive argument that Sebald was Nobel Prize worthy- it's a deeply moving account of a man, Jacques Austerlitz, and how rediscovers his family past after being orphaned during World War II.  To call a work "Sebaldian" is to claim that said work is digressive, mingles plot and place indiscriminately, includes both fictional and non-fictional elements and defies easy categorization.  Reading that list of descriptive characteristics, it's easy to see that the resulting work might be more alienating than appealing, but in Austerlitz, technique and story marry fully.

 I listened to Austerlitz as an audio book on the hunch that Sebaldian prose would sound better spoken than read.  Indeed, such was the case.  I don't doubt that anyone who has trouble with written Sebald would be advised to try an audio book to really get the rhythm of the writing- which often takes the for of speech- one character relating to another a story told by a third character, or even a story told by another character, who told it to the relater, who is now telling it to the narrator.  The prior sentence describes EVERY Sebald novel, not just Austerlitz, but it all really comes together in winning fashion in Austerlitz, which is, natch, another fine example of a German author grappling with the consequence of World War II in Germany.  Perhaps unusual is that Sebald is a non Jewish German author writing a book from the perspective of the child of a Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  The last layer of Austerlitz relating his story to the narrator saves it from being a book written directly from the perspective of a Jew (though now that I think about it, Austerlitz, raised in Wales, never says that he is a Jew, and he wasn't raised as one) but Austerlitz is a book, written by a German, that truly confronts the evil of the Holocaust, focusing on the mania for order that characterized the German effort at genocide.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

At Swim, Two Boys (2001) by Jaime O'Neill

Book Review
At Swim, Two Boys (2001)
by Jaime O'Neill

  Irish authors occupy a unique position in the pantheon of modern writers.  Ireland produced James Joyce, the most modern modernist of all and also the most romantic life-story of any 20th century novelist.  Ireland also produced Samuel Beckett, more or less lineally from James Joyce, and Beckett won a uniquely important Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote books in French, and is himself the single most important modernist writer in addition to James Joyce.  Flann O'Brian (Brian O'Nolan) exists at one remove from Beckett and Joyce, as a significant, but not the most significant, post-modernist writer.  At Swim, Two Boys references the work of Flann O'Brien, At-Swim-Two-Birds, published in 1939. 

 Still, the Irish impact of 20th century avant-garde literature is second to none.  What makes that more amazing is that the Irish impact on world literature outside that very small group is almost nill.  There are very few Irish family sagas.  There's no Irish equivalent for the post World War II generation of American or English authors, but ALL those authors were directly inspired by Joyce, Beckett and O'Brien.  Of course, you can't leave out Edna O'Brien and John Banville must be acknowledged as a continuing force in international prestige literary fiction, but At Swim, Two Boys by Jaime O'Neill is a worthy addition to the high Irish literary tradition, a 550 page gay coming of age novel set outside and inside Dublin before and during the Easter Rebellion of 1916.

  O'Neill focuses on three main characters, James, the younger son of an upwardly mobile Catholic shopkeeper, himself a veteran of the British Army;  Doyler Doyle, the son of a local drunkard, also a British army veteran.   James and Doyler find an unlikely friendship with a gay undertone, but nothing explicit.  Doyler promises to teach James to swim to the rock, a local landmark difficult to reach because of the strength of the Irish coastal tides.

 Meanwhile, Anthony MacMurrough, returns to the neighborhood where his spinster aunt is the sole remaining member of the local land owning family.  MacMurrough has just spent two years in an English prison for "gross indecency" with a chauffeur.  Anthony's ambitious aunt doesn't care, and moves forward with her plans to integrate Anthony back into Irish society, as she plots to end English rule in her native land.

   O'Neill relies almost but not entirely on stream of consciousness techniques, switching between Anthony and James, or James and Doyler, often in the same chapter.  In that sense, At Swim, Two Boys does resemble Joyce, but not the difficult machinations of O'Brien in At-Swim-Two-Birds.  But the title of this book does accurately reflect that two boys swimming plays a central role in the plot.  The success of At Swim, Two Boys is not just in it being an Irish gay coming of age story, but also for the Easter Rebellion back ground.   Even with the stream of consciousness technique, there is enough information to allow the reader to follow the historical events of this interesting time.

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