Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll (2002) by Alvaro Mutis

Book Review
The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll (2002)
 by Alvaro Mutis

Replaces: The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie

   In 2002, the New York Review of Books published an English translation of Colombian writer Alvaro Mutis' six novella series about Magroll the Gaviero(which means "topsail" and also means seagull), a peripetic sailor whose itinerary typically evokes immediate comparisons with Joseph Conrad.  Francisco Goldman, writing the introduction for the English language translation, rather dismisses the Conrad comparison in favor of the authors own preference for comparisons to Proust, and yeah, OK, I mean who wouldn't rather be compared to Proust than Conrad, but Mutis writes about the seamans life, in the same obscure corners of the globe that Conrad covered, and I just think it's impossible to read Mutis without thinking about Joseph Conrad.

   Mutis hasn't found much of an audience in the English speaking world.  He doesn't fit into the literary world of magical realism.  The prose is florid, at times purple, like Mutis was writing in the late 19th century (again, Conrad comes to mind.) The original Spanish language collection of the novellas was published in 1993, so even given the 10 year lag, Mutis was still writing out of time, like a throwback to the previous century of literature.

 At 700 pages, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll isn't a light read- I would have loved to have listened to an Audiobook edition but sigh it doesn't exist! I don't think the New York Review of Books does Audiobook editions.  I'm actually going to check on that when I get done, because if there is one publishing concern I intend to closely monitor for new releases in the future it's going to be the New York Review of Books.   Anyway- it's not a light read, but because it is seven novellas strung together, and because Mutis doesn't make following the story hard on the reader- it's basically Maqroll recalling his adventures; The Adventures of Misadventures of Magroll goes by faster than what you would expect from a 700 page book. 

Democracy (1984) by Joan Didion

Book Review
Democracy (1984)
by Joan Didion

Replaces: Downriver by Iain Sinclair

  I can't imagine what happened between 2006, when the first 1001 Books edition was published without including Joan Didion's 1984 novel, Democracy, and 2008, when the second edition was published and Democracy replaced Downriver by Iain Sinclair.  Didion has a literary reputation that doesn't quite match with the novel-centric approach of the 1001 Books project.  Didion has written several novels, but she's best known for her non fiction, and her status as a Californian with substantial ties to Los Angeles makes her hugely suspect to the London based editorial staff of the 1001 Books project.

   Democracy has nothing to do with Los Angeles.   It is, instead, about Inez Victor, the Jackie O esque (I'm assuming?) wife of U.S. Senator and Presidential hopeful Harry Victory.  The Wikipedia page also mentions her enduring extra marital love affair with CIA fixer Jack Lovett.  Didion also throws in a post-modern curveball by using herself as the narrator.  It's an unusual post-modernist fillip to place on top a conventional narrative about the ennui of 20th century American elites.

  I can't explained between 2006 and 2008 that elevated Democracy onto the 1001 Books list.  Maybe you can point to a general late career revival she experienced- maybe it was triggered by her Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for  The (non fiction) Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband.   I read Democracy as an Ebook- making it one of the few of the more than 250 books from the first revision of the 1001 Books list to actually be available as an Ebook.   I'm only about 45 books in and already I had to go back to the mid 1980's to find a readily available Ebook from the list that was available from the Los Angeles Public Library.   Very few books not written originally in English make it into the ecosystem of Ebooks and Audiobooks, and almost all of those are new releases.  If you go back, 10, 20, 30 years, books that have been translated into English are almost totally absent from electronic formats. 

The Twins (1993) by Tessa de Loo

Book Review
The Twins (1993)
by Tessa de Loo

Replaces: The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra

   Dutch literature makes another appearances in the 1001 Books list, with The Twins by Tessa de Loo.  Controversially, The Twins replaces a book by a south Asian author.   De Loo has experience limited success getting her books translated into English-  The Twins is the only book to get translated and get it's own movie in English.   Unsurprisingly, this book is about a pair of German girls- twins-  who are separated after their parents die on the cusp of World War II.   One sibling stays behind with cruel German family members, where she is indoctrinated into Nazi ideology and marries an Austrian member of the SS.  The other daughter is sent to the Netherlands, where she is raised by a trade union Communist with a love for music and a tolerant disposition.  During the war, where German twin Anna cares for and maintains a mansion being used to house German army officers, Dutch twin Lotte helps her family shelter a half dozen Jews, though not her Jewish fiance, who is deported and later killed in the camps.

  There were a range of actual and literary responses to the Dutch experience in World War II.  Given the close ties between Germany and the Netherlands, some favored the Nazi's.  On the other end, Jewish citizens of the Netherlands were targets, and in between there was a wide swath of people- often left leaning types- who mounted a kind of passive resistance to Nazi rule that included wide spread sheltering of Jews.  At least, that is the picture I get from the novels about the period written by Dutch authors.  I suppose it is possible that the level of resistance is over emphasized at the expense of the collaborationists- those clearly on the wrong side of history.   Twin Anna is a willing Nazi, but she defends herself against her twins accusation in their present old age dialogues within the book. 

  It all seemed pretty rote to me, and hard to justify, except in the sense that it gives the Dutch another list worthy author. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

Suttree (1979) by Cormac McCarthy

Book Review
Suttree (1979)
by Cormac McCarthy

  Cormac McCarthy is another author I've selected via the process of this blog for a completest approach.  By completest(completist?) I mean revisiting all the works of an author, not just the canonical books.  McCarthy merits this treatment for a variety of reasons: interest which preexists this blog, personal enjoyment of his books, his status as a canonical novelists both within the United States and outside the United States and his refusal to participate in the entertainment industrial complex a la J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon.

  Whatever it's merits or failures, there is no denying that Suttree is the starting point for a serious reader of Cormac McCarthy.  It is often called his masterpiece and I think it is fair to say that calling Suttree McCarthy's Ulysses is not specious.   Casual readers are most likely to be familiar with McCarthy's later works- The Road, in particular, which is the last novel McCarthy published (in 2006), and his later western books starting with Blood Meridian in 1985.

  Suttree marks an end to an earlier, less familiar period of McCarthy's career, which can be called his Faulknerian/Southern Gothic/Tennessee period.  Suttree is all those things in spades, set in 1950's Knoxville, where McCarthy was raised by his father, a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley River Authority.  The character of Cornelius Suttree, who has renounced a life of educated privilege in favor of living the life of a drunken derelict, making a (poor) living as a fisherman on the river and generally acting like Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas: a man bent on self destruction.

   Suttree represents the culmination of this earlier period- let's call it his Southern Gothic period- which is more transparently a product of the Southern Gothic tradition.  McCarthy's fifties Knoxville is populated with a host of character that echo those from Flannery O'Connor's short stories.  McCarthy is faithful to the period- although the milieu of the down and out in Knoxville is racially integrated, the white characters have no hesitation about dropping the N-bomb on every fifth page.  It's not a deal breaker, exactly, but he isn't writing in or about the distance past, so the dedication to verisimilitude left me uneasy.

   McCarthy shies away neither from forbidden words nor bodily functions- the extent to which Suttree is filled with vile bodily fluids is remarkable, and there is a general miasma of rot and decay that hovers over every page of the book.  I didn't regret my choice to listen to the Audiobook version, which is a work of art in and of itself.  Suttree is so filled with colorful characters and regional argot and vocabulary that it almost seems a shame to NOT listen to the Audiobook.   I think I'm moving towards a future where I do both: listen to the Audiobook and read the book itself for the same title.  If a book is really good, it's worth it, by definition almost, just as you would see the movie version. 

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