Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Small Remedies (2000) by Shashi Deshpande

Book Review
Small Remedies (2000)
 by Shashi Deshpande

  Trying to discuss "Indian literature" is like trying to discuss "European Literature," and there are a half dozen more or less independent literary traditions in different languages, from different parts of India and including an incredibly over-represented population of expatriate authors of Indian birth or ancestry.  If you want to expand the designation to South Asia, you throw in the Pakistanis, who have a less diverse but equally vibrant literary scene with their own cast of expatriate/emigre authors.

  Each independent culture gets it's own bildungsroman, it's own multi-generational family saga (an especially vibrant genre for Indian authors) and then on top of that you consider women authors, the largely still absent lgbt community and class/caste distinctions- again a particularly relevant area for Indian writers, and you can see how the subject of Indian/South Asian literature has enough action to keep a casual reader occupied for years.

   Deshpande made it into the first edition of the 1001 Books list with Small Remedies.  Deshpande published her first novel in 1980, so Small Remedies came well into her career.  Deshpande is a well-established author inside India, but I don't believe she even has an American publisher, and Small Remedies was published by Penguin India.  I ended up having to buy the UK edition from Amazon since the Los Angeles Public Library doesn't carry it- shocking.

 Once I actuall acquired the book I managed to misplace it in the trunk of my car for six months, and so, finally, I sat down and read it.  I can see what Deshpande brings to the table: strong female voices from INSIDE India (as supposed to expatriate authors) are in short supply, and Deshpande must have been one of the first to really establish herself, and the fact that she lived inside India makes her achievement all the more impressive.  Probably though it has limited her appeal to English language audiences in the UK and the US, which I'm sure doesn't matter to her.

   Madhu, the narrator, is grieving the loss of her only son, her marriage to her Doctor husband Som is in shambles.  Grief stricken, she leaves her comfort-less surroundings to write the biography of   Savitribai Indorekar, or "Bai,"  a popular singer and musician who scandalized her well-off Hindu family by leaving her husband and child and taking up with her Muslim accompanist.    There isn't much new here in terms of class- aside from an early chapter where Madhu complains about the location of the toilet at the flat where she is staying while she writes Bai's biography- there is little of the noise and chaos that characterizes the Indian of most contemporary novelists.

    Of course, the death of a child is a big deal anywhere, but especially so in India, where the life of a childless woman is commonly considered meaningless.  I'm making this statement just based on the literature, but there is no doubt that the cult of the individual which so characterizes western fiction is almost wholly absent in Indian literature.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Deep River (1993) by Shusaku Endo

Book Review
Deep River (1993)
 by Shusaku Endo

Replaces:  Pastoralia by George Saunders

   Contemporary Japanese literature is more than Haruki Murakami, though you'd be hard pressed to find the books of Shusaku Endo at any English language book store.   Deep River follows a small group of Japanese tourists on holiday in India, where each of the protagonists is seeking a different kind of spiritual peace.   The three protagonists are Osamu Isobe, an older man searching for the reincarnation of his deceased wife; Numada, who lived through a hellish experience as a Japanese solider during World War II and who wants to pay homage to a pet bird he believes died in his place and Mitsuko Naruse, the main character, a divorced woman who is obsessed with an old college classmate who is in India.

   Much of the action takes place outside of Japan, with India taking center stage and a trip to France by Naruse playing a prominent role as well.  Deep River works well as an introduction to Endo- not even two hundred pages long, and with nothing that prevents the reader from accessing the text.  At the same time there was nothing, other than the fact of the Japanese characters, that distinguishes Deep River from a dozen other writers of literary fiction in the 90's and 2000's.  

Nocturnes (2009) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Review
Nocturnes (2009)
by Kazuo Ishiguro

  Kazuo Ishiguro is the first author where I've read his entire bibliography as a result of the 1001 Books project.  I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity, and it turns out that I quite like Ishiguro, that all of his books are interesting, and that he is an ideal candidate for Audiobook treatment.   Nocturnes is his collection of short stories, all of which involve musicians as characters.   In interviews, Ishiguro said that the stories were conceived holistically, with the intent that they be published together, in this particular order, in a single volume.  That intent is born out by the over lapping of characters in two of the stories, and the similarity in tone and theme.

   It's also true that the same can be said of Ishiguro's entire bibliography, every book deals explicitly with the vagaries of human memory and features narrators who meander through the events of the particular novel at hand while they contemplate the past.   Ishiguro isn't the only one- memory and it's fail-ability are at the heart of many authors who have scaled the peaks of literary fiction stardom.  Unlike many of the European authors who work this territory, Ishiguro has the good sense to write in English, making him more accessible than many of the authors who have similar concerns but write in unfashionable non-English languages.

  If I had to list Ishigruo's novel in order from favorite to least favorite, I would do it this way:

  1.   Never Let Me Go (2005):   This is Ishiguro's dive into science fiction, about some clones living in a dreary alternate history England where the clones are raised for spare body parts.  For me, it was the best of both worlds in terms of being a combination of fun genre and serious literary fiction.
  2. The Remains of the Day (1989):  Ishiguro's break-out hit, and as pure a distillation of his literary technique as any of his later books, it shows that he showed up basically full grown on the world literature scene.   The backdrop of pre- World War II England also seems like the terrain that most suits Ishiguro and his thematic concerns.
  3. The Buried Giant (2015):  This is Ishiguro's fantasy novel- loosely set in the world of King Arthur/Arthurian legend.  Like Never Let Me Go, the genre setting enlivens the typical themes of human memory (and lack of memory).
  4. An Artist of the Floating World (1986):  An Artist of the Floating World is very similar to The Remains of the Day in that both books deal with unresolved regrets from behavior surrounding the wind up to the second world war.  
  5. The Unconsoled (1995):  This is probably the first Ishiguro book I wouldn't recommend- best called "Kafka-esque" this novel lacks the genre hook that envlience both Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant, and it also lacks the perfection of The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World.
  6. A Pale View of the Hills (1982):  Ishiguro's dour first novel- it shows obvious promise but lacks any of the tricks he learned to spice up the brooding and reminiscing that occupies most of his protagonists, leaving a slog of domestic fiction.
  7. Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (2009):  The main thing that Nocturnes has going for it relative to his other books is a noticeable sense of humor.  Unfortunately, humor is not really Ishiguro's strong suit.
  8. When We Were Orphans (2000):  When We Were Orphans is his only genuine misfire, a soggy mess of a "Detective Novel" that begs credibility and mangles the promising setting of Shanghai during the Japanese invasion prior to the onset of World War II.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Suite Francaise (2004) by Irène Némirovsky

The Suite Francaise (2004)
by Irène Némirovsky

Replaces: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

  Irène Némirovsky was a Ukranian-Jewish woman who grew up in France. She denied citizenship in France, despite a succesful career as a writer, deported to Auschwitz and murdered by the Nazi's at the age of 39.  She was rediscovered by the world in 2004, when two novella's she wrote during the Nazi occupation of Paris were found- written in long land and published (and translated).   If her deportation and murder by the Nazi's wasn't part of her mini bio, you wouldn't guess that Némirovsky from the material in The Suite Francaise.

  The first novella describes the panicked flight from Paris in advance of the Nazi invasion, the second the goings-on in a small town in the months before the Russian invasion.  Neither novella has a single Jewish character.  I guess Némirovsky converted to Catholicism, to no avail, as far of the Nazi's were concerned (or the French authorities, for that matter). 

  The central irony of The Suite Francaise is that this victim of the Holocaust is also the author of the one of the books that provides the most sympathetic portrayal of Nazi officers.   Indeed, the main character of the second novella is a young French aristocrat who semi-falls in love with an occupying German officer.   By any measure, the French got the best of the Nazi occupation experience- occupied France was to stand as a beacon of the benevolent nature of German invasion.  Compare the experience of characters set in southern and eastern Europe, let alone those in Russia proper, where the German occupation was gritty and brutal.

   The book that The Suite Francaise replaces in the 1001 Books list is Fingersmith by Sarah Waters- she lost both her titles in the first revision- which I think makes her the first 1001 Books author to be delisted from the list entirely.  What to make of it?  Maybe that both of her books were diversity picks, and she had to make way for new flavors of the month.  That isn't my opinion mind- I'm just speculating on the editorial process that would result in an author being wholly eliminated from a 1001 volume list of canonical books. 

So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood (2015) by Patrick Modiano

Book Review
So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood (2015)
by Patrick Modiano

    Jean Daragane is a Parisian author, past his most active period, living in near total isolation in his apartment.   His bouts of self-contemplation are interrupted when he receiving a threatening phone calll, followed shortly by the appearance of a classic film noir ingenue (or is she a femme fatale? or is neither category appropriate?   Daragane is quickly (the entire book is 160 pages long, a little over three hours in Audiobook form) drawn into a decades old murder plot, which forces him to come to terms with a traumatic childhood memory.

  If it sounds interesting- it isn't- at least not in any way the murder mystery/detective fiction plot precis communicates.   Modiano was a surprise (to English language readers outside of the French literature departments) winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014- and everyone in the English speaking world is coming to terms with the fact that when he won the award they had neither read any of his books or even heard of him.

  I'm not sure if that was entirely the case in the UK, but it is very much still the case here in the US, where it is hard to find a Modiano book in a bookstore (they had many of his books at Foyle's in London during a recent visit.)  For example, this particular book doesn't have a Wikipedia page, despite the fact that it was published the year after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  If ever one of his books would get an English language Wikipedia page, it would be the book published the year after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

  So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood resembles many writers from the last 50 years of European literary fiction:  A little detective story and a whole lot of ruminating.  Memory and trauma frequently appear in tandem.   That actually does describe this book, and it also accurately describes the kind of mainline European fiction that has been getting translated for decades.


Monday, January 28, 2019

The Middleman (2018) by Olen Steinhauer

Book Review
The Middleman (2018)
by Olen Steinhauer

   Olen Steinhauer is a good candidate for "next canonical writer of spy fiction," with jacket blurbs that frequently reference John Le Carre (aka the last canonical writer of spy ficiton.)  Steinhauer has many of the attributes that may allow him to pass the boundary of genre and literary fiction:  Unusual locations, psychologically complex characters,  a big popular audience and a huge critical following within the genre.   He also has a moderately succesful television show, Berlin Station, which is on something called EPIX.

   Perhaps he's only one good movie adaptation away from crossing the border of genre and literary fiction.  George Clooney has optioned one of his Milo Weaver novels- about a CIA agent specializing in "black ops"- but there hasn't been much news since Sony announced Doug Liman as the directly six years ago.  The Middleman is a "stand alone" novel- about a group of crypto-leftists who have a vague plot to overthrow the American government. 

  The main protagonist is Rachel Proulx, a FBI Agent working in the emerging field of leftist domestic terrorists.  As with any good spy novel, you can't really get into the plot without venturing into spoiler territory.  Certainly fans of the genre will enjoy any book by Steinhauer, but I'm not entirely sold on his merit as a writer beyond the rule of genre.   The characters may be complex, but they are also predictable, and the plot was pretty standard- less inventive then All the Old Knives, his 2010 stand alone book about the aftermath of a terrorist hijacking of an airplane in the Middle East.

Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (2018)by Cynthia Haven

Image result for rene girard
Rene Girard
Book Review
Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard  (2018)
by Cynthia Haven

  I had never heard of René Girard until a character called him "the French Nietzsche" in Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano.  Only days after coming across this first reference I saw a lengthy article devoted to Girard in The New York Review of Books.  Titled The Prophet of Envy and written by Robert Pogue Harrison, this article reviewed Evolution of Desire and discussed many of Girard's books.   Both Haven and Harrison agree that Girard is due a posthumous reassessment that would place his name among the first rank of late 20th/early 21st century philosophers.

  It is a bold claim, since Girard spent his professional life as a (more or less) Professor of French Literature at a series of American universities, culminating in his time at Stanford University.  As this biography makes clear, it shouldn't be a secret as to why Girard hasn't made a deeper impression: He espouses a deeply unfashionable blend of non-post modernist philosophy with a Christian perspective- both stances render him anathema to generations of professors and graduate students in the western world.

  On the other hand, his central hypothesis, stated on this wikipedia page as:

Girard's fundamental ideas, which he developed throughout his career and provided the foundation for his thinking, were that desire is mimetic (i.e., all of our desires are borrowed from other people); that all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry); that the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry; and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.

  Just happens to anticipate the internet, social media, and what one might call our current wetanschauung.  You could call Girard a prophet of the post-Facebook, post-Instagram world, in the sense that both platforms specialize in mimetic desire and excel at scapegoating.  Examples are so numerous that it would be easier to list examples that don't fit into these two categories.   Evolution of Desire is a good departure point for an exploration of Girard, since his books are obscure enough to require some background, and his life is unfamiliar enough that a prospective reader would want some idea of what he was about.

  It should be said that his life was singularly unexciting outside of his ideas.  He never came close to doing anything exciting in his personal life, and his professional career was a steady upward progressions, culminating in his recruitment to Stanford, the most expensive recruitment of a professor in the humanities in US history.  

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