Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

My Struggle (Volume 2)(2009) by Karl Ove Knausgård

Book Review
My Struggle (Volume 2)(2009)
 by Karl Ove Knausgård

    I was lukewarm about the first volume of My Struggle- I listened to the Audiobook- as I ended up doing for Volume 2 after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to read an Ebook copy.  At the end of Volume 1, I felt like I could understand the appeal, but that I didn't quite connect with the book.

  Volume 2, which I mostly listened to while helping my Mom with her hip surgery in the Bay Area the past week, was quite a different experience- often moving me close to tears and leaving me with the conviction that at least the first two volumes of My Struggle- both of which were written before the first book was released and became a world-wide phenomenon- are among the greatest works of 21st century literature, and are both dead-bang canonical.

  I can see where the following four volumes- all of which were written and published after Knausgard became a world-wide literary phenomenon, might be...different, since the theme of the first two volumes deals so explicitly with Knausgard's perceived failings as a writer and human being.   If the sacrificial family member of Volume One is his father- a man who quite literally drinks himself to death in that book, the sacrifice of the second book is his second wife, Linda Boström, a Swedish poet and mother of his children.  In this book, Knausgard reveals the nature of his struggle for the first time- that is, to maintain a quest for artistic and/or personal greatness while surviving the prosaic mundanities of everyday life.  In this regard, his wife and children are cast as the role of the villains, as is Knausgard himself.

  I resisted My Struggle for so long that I feel almost ashamed lauding it now, but man- I really connected with the themes as a I drove to and from the hospital surrounding my Mom's surgery.  Knausgard truly is a Proust for the twenty first century.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

The Young Man (1984) by Botho Strauß

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German author Brotho Strauß
Book Review
The Young Man (1984)
by Botho Strauß

Replaces: Time's Arrow by Martin Amis

  "More obscure" is one observation to be made about the difference between the original edition of the 1001 Books project and the 2008 revision.  The general trend is to include more authors from less represented regions and languages, replacing authors largely from the United Kingdom who had three or more titles in the original edition.

   Strauss went from zero books in the first edition to two books in the second- making him a big omission, especially since both titles were published before 1990 and were presumably known to the editors when they were putting the first book together.  It's hard to say anything about the contents, but I am going to quote liberally from the excellent wikipedia page to spare myself the labor:

Leon Pracht, a young man, abandons a budding career in the footsteps of his father—a historian of religion specialised on Montanus—after the positive reception of his debut as a theatre director. He is recruited for an adaptation of Jean Genet's The Maids in Cologne, starring the two diva actresses Petra "Pat" Kurzrok and Margarethe "Mag" Wirth. However, Pat and Mag turn out to be too much to handle. Leon asks for advice from the local star director Alfred Weigert, but still fails to actualise his vision for the play.

A woman enters a forest and finds a department store named The Tower of the Germans. After a phantasmagorical episode she finds herself naked in front of the proprietor of the Germans. The proprietor of the Germans is a large, floating head which is half man and half carp.

A man is doing a study on an alternative community whose members are known as the Syks. After observing their unusual habits he commits a social error which freaks out a local woman. He is banished from the colony and takes part in a dreamlike ritual involving scatological sexual activity. Afterwards his female colleague writes a scathing report about his unprofessional behaviour.

A king dies and is condemned as a criminal, which becomes a long-lasting national trauma. At a terrace behind the castle, a number of people are gathered: the paramedic Reppenfries, his sister-in-law Paula and wife Dagmar, the beautiful Almut, the "modern" Hanswerner, the mail clerk Yossica, and the narrator, Leon. Each person tells a personal story or discusses art and philosophy.

Later, Leon finds Yossica who has been transformed into a clump of earth with a face. She explains how she, an aspiring songwriter, had met two peculiar talent scouts, Schwarzsicht and Zuversicht. The first, dressed in ragged clothes, offered her a slowly developing talent which eventually would result in timeless quality. The second, dressed elegantly and dancing, offered her to become the leading star of a new trend. Yossica tried to trick the agents so she could have both, but the attempt failed badly and she became a lump of earth. She asks Leon to bring her with him and put her in soil so she can grow into her former self.
Leon works as a photographer and lives with Yossica. She convinces him to go and meet Alfred Weigert who is staying at a skyscraper hotel in their city. Weigert has had a massive success as Ossia, the main character is a series of comedy films which he also directed. As Ossia—the name he has become known under also in private—he brilliantly captures the German national character, playing a Prussian vagabond described in the press as a mix between Parsifal and Paracelsus. Leon had been involved in the making of the first Ossia film but after that left the industry. When Leon and Yossica meet Ossia in his room, he has aged poorly and become an overweight recluse. He has not appeared as an actor in his last two films, which have been disjointed, pseudo-profound and not nearly as successful as the previous ones. In desperation, Ossia asks Leon to collaborate on a new film project. Ossia hands him notes to read and starts to explain the project, intended as a vehicle for Pat in a great female comedic role, but the film lacks structure and Leon disapproves of it. Leon asks Ossia to come along for a walk to get some fresh air, but Ossia declines and remains inside the tower.

       There you go, people! Even reading the description it is hard to make sense of what any of it means.  The fact that it is a "phantasmagorical" type of book written in German and translated into English doesn't help, but I would observe that it seems more like a book that would have been written in the 1920's than the 1980's.   It also reminded me of Italo Calvino, another author I need to revisit because I just didn't get much out of him the first time through. 

Disappearance (1993) by David Dabydeen

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Guyanese author David Dabydeen
Book Review
Disappearance (1993)
 by David Dabydeen

  Every remaining title from the original 1001 Books edition is an event around here! David Dabydeen is a Guyanese author- with fiction, non-fiction and poetry books to his credit.  Disappearance was extremely tough to track down- I ended up buying a paperback copy from the UK on Amazon.   The obvious comparison as far as this novel goes- about a Guyanese engineer who is brought to the Southern Coast of the UK to help with a break-water project, is V.S Naipaul.

  The engineer spends most of his spare time hanging out with Mrs. Rutherford- his landlord- and through her he gains knowledge about the local landscape and reflects on his own experience as a member of a nascent post-colonial elite in Guyana.

Dabydeen seems reasonably well known in the UK, in the US he's seems to be almost unheard of- I couldn't find a single review of this book on the first page of a Google search of the book title and author.    I'm generally interested in the line of authors that starts with Conrad and continues with Naipaul.  He seems like a solid one book contributor to the core 1001 Books list- I would read another book by him, but not sure I'd recommend this one to all but the biggest fans of Naipaul and post-colonial literature (I don't know any of those, personally.)

The Devils Dance (2018) by Hamid Ismailov

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Uzbekistani author Hamid Ismailov has lived in the UK for the past twenty five years.

Book Review
The Devils Dance (2018)
 by Hamid Ismailov

    Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbekistani author who fled the country in 1992, just after this book was originally published in Uzbekistan, and landed in the United Kingdom, where he spent 25 years working for the BBC. 

  Uzbekistan is a core element of  Central Asia, one of the most interesting, least understood regions on Earth.  The region emerged from Soviet dominance after the collapse of the USSR only to confront a series of (still ongoing) dictatorships of the largely secular variety.  The west has been quiescent in the repression, since the dictators over there are, by necessity, key partners in the war against radical islam.  Recently, the Chinese part of Central Asia has been in the news for an anti-Islamic gulag prison camp system.   

  At one point- maybe in the period between the conquest of the region by Islam through the conquest of the region by the Mongols, you could make a case that the area was one of the bright spots of global civilization.    By crushing the Oasis-centered Islamic city-states of the region, the Mongols ushered in a still-ongoing dark age that has led to a region that is not only under the boot of a variety of dictators, but also one of the poorest places in the world.

  In theory, it is a rich history that would seem to call for a rich literature, but of course, repression and a century of Russian Communism have not helped its authors make a dent in the global literary marketplace.    I was pretty excited to find The Devils' Dance available as an Ebook through the Los Angeles Public Library system- score one for global capitalism!

  Set during the winter of 1938, under the boot of Stalinism, Abdulla Qodiriry, one of Uzbekistan's most famous authors, is taken from his home by the Soviet Secret Police (not for the first time) and thrown into a prison with a grab bag representing the region's cultural diversity.   This was really a book where I wished I had read it as a physical book as supposed to an ebook, but I'd wager that I will never, ever see a physical copy of The Devils' Dance unless I buy one. 

    The narrative ping pongs back and forth between the secret prison and 19th century Tashkent, a relative high point in the post-Mongol historical record, and the time of the "Great Game"  which was a struggle for cultural hegemony in Central and South Asia fought between the British Empire and the Russian Empire.  Uzbekistan and the environs were on the margins of this conflict- which was focused further south in Afghanistan, but Ismailov/Qodirity bring it alive through the novel that Qodirriy composes in his cell.

    It's compelling material, but dense in terms of references that the average (or even above average) Western reader is unlikely to grasp without looking stuff up on the internet.  If you see a hard copy- grab it- who knows when another Uzbekistani novelist will get an American publication of one of their novels.

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