VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Book of Disquiet (2003) by Fernando Pessoa

Portrait of Pessoa, 1914
Fernando Pessoa, Portuguese writer
Book Review
The Book of Disquiet (2003)
by Fernando Pessoa

Replaces: Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow

  Fernando Pessoa was a Portuguese poet and writer who defied the categorization that is part and parcel of gaining literary fame in the 20th century.  He died in 1935, but most of the listings in his bibliography date from the 1990's and beyond, including the first English language edition of The Book of Disquiet, which apparently came out in 1991.  The quirky publishing history stems from the fact that while Pessoa left a locked check with 25,000 unpublished pages of prose and poetry at his death.  These pages have been in the Portuguese national library since 1988, and The Book of Disquiet represents a posthumous editing and organization of a small part of some of these materials.

   The style of The Book of Disquiet is aphoristic, somewhere between Nietzsche and Joris-Karl Husmans.   Pessoa, in the guise of Bernardo Soares, is clearly a fan of the stoics and epicureans, and not a fan of humanity, or interacting with humanity.  He preaches withdrawal and self-deletion.  If you are inclined in the direction of the Decadent movement, on the late 19th century, or an existentialist or follower of one of the many iterations of 1960's spawned counter-culture, Pessoa is worth checking out- this being more or less the only book of his you'll ever see in English.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Fifth Business (1970) by Robertson Davies

Canadian writer Robertson Davies, author of The Deptford Trilogy which included the famous book, Fifth Business
Canadian writer Robertson Davies
Book Review
Fifth Business (1970)
 by Robertson Davies

Replaces: Ratner's Star by Don Delillo

  Here is another addition to the 2008 revision of 1001 Books who I'd never heard of before.  Davies was an incredibly versatile and prolific Canadian author,  He worked in fiction and non fiction, wrote novels and short fiction, plays and even has a Wikipedia section of his bibliography titled"fictional essays."   The Fifth Business is the first book of his Deptford Trilogy, narrated by Dunstan Ramsey- later books would be narrated by the son of Ramsey's lifetime friend, Boy Staunton and Paul Dempster, Ramsey's childhood friend, who becomes a travelling magician.    These days, most people don't read the whole trilogy, just Fifth Business.

  Ramsay is a professor at a prestigious boys high school in Canada.  He is a lifelong bachelor and spends most of his free time reaching the lives of Catholic saints, a field known as Hagiography.   His best friend is Boyd Staunton, and together they share responsibility for a childhood snowball incident that resulted in the decline of Mary Dempster, the mother of the narrator of the third book- Paul Dempster.   Boyd becomes a very wealthy businessman, first in sugar and then in a variety of consumer products.  His business success is mirrored by an unhappy personal life, particularly his loveless marriage. Ramsay is often called upon to pick up the wreckage and this back-and-forth takes up the bulk of the middle of Fifth Business.
 
  After Staunton's surprise suicide (he drives into the river, a rock clenched between his teeth), Dempster removes himself to Mexico, where he encounters Paul Dempster, now Magnus Eisengrim, a travelling magician.  It is all very strange, but in a decidedly PG way that more resembles the literature of 19th century England than 1970's North America. Hard to believe that Davies was a contemporary of Roth.   I wasn't bored, but the whole book seemed a little fusty- much like the actual copy of the book I read, a library hardback that looked like it hadn't been read in two decades.

 It isn't hard to see why critics of the time might have celebrated Fifth Business and the Deptford Trilogy, but in 2020 it's very "inside baseball" something a would-be writer might get to, or a Canadian graduate student.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Dancing in the Dark: My Struggle: Book 4 (2015) by Karl Ove Knausgaard


Book Review
Dancing in the Dark:
 My Struggle: Book 4 (2015)
by Karl Ove Knausgaard


    Four books into the six volume My Struggle series by Karl Ove Knausgaard,  we have heard alot about Knausgaard and there are some things we know about him:

1.  His dad was an alcoholic and drank himself to death.
2.  His relationships with women are complicated!
3.  He despises the ordinary and yearns for greatness.
4.  He has some strange hang ups about sex.

  In Dancing in the Dark, Knausgaard hones in on a period that has been mentioned in the first three volumes: the year Knausgaard spent in the north of Norway as a teacher- he was 18, and apparently that is something you can do in Norway, graduate from high school and immediately get a job as a temporary teacher on a short term contract in one of many schools that are perpetually understaffed.

   The major plot line in Book 4 is Knausgaard and his attempts to lose his virginity despite being afflicted by premature ejaculation, a situation compounded by the fact that he never masturbated.  In the era of 5G internet connections and Pornhub it's hard to imagine a male Norwegian making it to 18 or 19 without a single experience of masturbation, but it wasn't incredibly unusual back in the day.  There are at least four excruciatingly described scenarios where Knausgaard fails to close the deal despite having a succession of willing would-be partners.

  An episode where he recalls the beginnings of his father's descent into mid-life alcoholism locates Book 4 within the father heavy narrative of the first three books, but his Dad doesn't dominate this volume the way he does in others.  Book four also gets into his beginnings as an (unpublished) writer, and by the end he is getting ready to enroll in a serious writing program.

  

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Audiobook Review: Molloy (1951) by Samuel Beckett



Image result for young samuel beckett
A young Samuel Beckett


Audiobook Review:
Molloy (1951)
 by Samuel Beckett

  I think that being a serious reader of 20th century literature means embracing Samuel Beckett.   He isn't what you would call a fun read, his work is split between conventional novels, non-conventional novels and his output as a playwright.  Irish by birth, many of his books were written in French, only later being translated into English, usually by Beckett himself.  Beckett's output was rich, and varied, with headings for Theater (over 20 works), Radio and Television in addition to his lengthy "Prose" section.  Molloy, however, occupies a critical position within that prose category- it's the first book in "The Trilogy."   His other two widely read prose works,  Murphy (1938) and Watt (1953) are thematic bookends for the central trilogy.

  Molloy, the first book in The Trilogy is split into two parts, roughly equal in length.  The first is a stream of consciousness narrative by Molloy, a hobbling down-on-his-look hobo type. The second part is narrated by Jacques Moran, who has tasked, for reasons unknown, to find Molloy.  Fair to say that I didn't get much from Molloy the first time through.  I was pretty sure that revisiting Beckett in Audiobook format would pay off since he was such a skilled playwright.   And indeed it did, because hearing the words in the characteristic irish brogue of Molloy drew out the humor that people are always talking about.

  Molloy and The Trilogy are widely considered to be a high point of 20th century literature and after hearing the Audiobook I'm beginning to get the drift.




Review from October 2015:

Book Review
Molloy (1951)
 by Samuel Beckett

  Samuel Beckett is another Nobel Prize winner (1969).  He's best known for his play, Waiting for Godot, the original "play about nothing," which has inspired a half century of post-modernists across the world.  His novels are less well known, but his canonical status as both an o.g. post-modernist AND a direct link between modernism and post-modernism(via his relationship with James Joyce) ensures that his novels are well represented within the 1001 Books project.

  Molloy is the first book in a trilogy of novels published, in French, in the 1950s.  Beckett was famously quoted saying he wrote in French because it allowed him to write "without style."  He also translated the books himself, and it's hard to tell that one is reading a translated work when you read Molloy.   Molloy is "about" the eponymous character of the title, a vagrant writer living somewhere in Ireland.  Molloy resembles both a character from his 1938 novel, Murphy and any number of characters from a James Joyce novel.  The idea of an intellectual drifting at the fringe of (or outside of) respectable society has been so well established by the 60s counter culture that you have to pinch yourself and say, "Hey, Beckett was writing this novel in 1950!"

 When it comes to the works of the 20th century avant garde, I'm at a distinct disadvantage because I read these books in intellectual isolation.  It's hard to say what is even the point of engaging avant garde art without a community surrounding you to discuss and validate the time spent taking in works of art with complex and non-obvious meanings.  For example, Molloy is studded with references to Dante's Inferno... I had no idea, because I haven't read Dante, I don't know anyone who has read Dante, and I don't know anyone who has read Beckett.   So much of avant garde art revolves around having a community to validate your choices, otherwise it's like...why not read best sellers?

Almayer's Folly (1895) by Joseph Conrad


Book Review
Almayer's Folly (1895)
by Joseph Conrad

  Almayer's Folly was Joseph Conrad's first novel and I believe it was also his first published work.  Many of Conrad's novels were published first in serial format- a sign of prestige at that point.  Almayer's Folly isn't typically read these days.  It covers the same general thematic territory as Heart of Darkness(1899), his universal number one hit but also Lord Jim (1900) which itself has a strong claim to being "the best" early Joseph Conrad novel. On top of that you've got to take at least one of his admittedly spotty list of books published after 1900.   Many people think Nostromo is Conrad's best (1904) while The Secret Agent (1907) has had a great run over the past several decades.

    Even so, Almayer's Folly is Conrad's FIRST novel, and if you are going to give a writer four or five canon level picks, the first novel is a good pick to round out the group.  Even this group leaves out about 15 other novels, some of which could make their own claim on a top five list.   I don't even recognize a dozen books of that longer list.   Conrad had a pretty uneven reputation during his own lifetime and my take is that he is also has been a loser in terms of the expansion of the canon to include more diverse perspectives. 

  On the other hand there is no denying that Conrad was writing about the developing world seriously at a time when it was mostly used as an off-page plot point.  It's easy to take issue with his depiction as native people as "less" than his white characters, but his white characters, whether English, Dutch or "half-caste" are plenty nasty in their own right.  At least Conrad has non-white characters in his books, and they take place someplace besides London, Paris or New York. 

  I went back and read the reviews that came out when the book was published- there are a good dozen or so available inside Google Books-  The Spectator of London seemed to get the vibe, but the publishers tacked on a (since abandoned?) subtitle "The Story of an Eastern River" and it looks like it was marketed as an adventure saga. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Testaments (2019) by Margaret Atwood

Image result for offred handmaid's tale
The degree to which Offred figures in The Testaments, Atwood's sequel  to The Handmaid's Tale, is a minor spoiler.
Book Review
The Testaments (2019)
 by Margaret Atwood

  What to say about the decision by the Booker Prize committee to "split" the award between The Testaments, Margaret Atwood's television-success inspired sequel (though different from seasons two and three of the show) and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.  It really calls into question the whole point of handing out an award.  I, for one, think it is cowardly and it delayed by inevitable encounter with The Testaments.   I like Margaret Atwood, but I don't love her.  The Handmaid's Tale is one of the most significant works of dystopian fiction in the 20th century, right up there with 1984 and Brave New World, but neither of those books have sequels.

   Celebration of The Testaments inevitably reflects the fact that everyone feels guilty over The Handmaid's Tale needing to wait a generation to find a truly mass audience.   Atwood's return to The Republic of Gilead is told through a variety of "sources"- a diary kept by one of the major characters from the first book, and "witness testimony" taken in the aftermath of the fall of Gilead.  I sensed that Atwood felt like she needed to counterbalance the overwhelming totalitarianism of the first book with a more tempered perspective that emphasized resistance from within, so to speak.

  But I listened to the Audiobook- a big budget affair with Hollywood actress Bryce Dallas Howard voicing one of the major characters. I rushed to finish it, at times almost blushing to the degree that Atwood's story mimicked conventional best-selling thriller motifs.  The Testaments is, more than anything else, a conventional best-seller. 

The Case Worker (1969) by Gyorgy Konrad

Konrád György.jpg
Hungarian author Gyorgy Konrad
Book Review
The Case Worker (1969)
 by Gyorgy Konrad

Replaces: Dead Babies by Martin Amis

   Well, he's no Milan Kundera, but Gyorgy Konrad is in a similar position as a central European author who wrote during the Communist period in that country.  Hungary was always an awkward fit with Communism, a former imperial power itself that suffered greatly from partition after both World War I and World War II.   There can be no doubt that he suffered greatly by being banned from publication in his native Hungarian language until after the fall of Communism in 1989.  Such are the vagaries of 20th century literature! 

   Konrad just died last September, so if there was going to be a reappraisal of his status in English, now would be the time.   The Case Worker is his best known book, about an inspector in the Hungarian department of child welfare, responsible for removing disabled children from parents who are incapable of caring for them.   That he ran afoul of the Communist era censor will come as no surprise to readers, there is a grimness in his depiction of contemporary Hungarian life that is positively nihilistic.

 Bye bye to Dead Babies (1975) by Martin Amis, it was his second book- an Agatha Christie inspired country-house mystery with Amis' characteristically mordant wit.  Dead Babies is probably only Amis' fourth-best book, behind London Fields- a clear career number one- Money and The Information.  

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Here's to You, Jesusa (1969) by Elena Ponisatowska

Image result for Elena Poniatowska young
Elena Poniatowska, Mexican author
Here's to You, Jesusa (1969)
 by Elena Ponisatowska

Replaces: The Public Burning by Robert Coover


   This is another book focusing on the Latin American working-class, here embodied by Jesusa- the narrator and protagonist.  Jesusa leads a colorful life, travelling with soldiers, drinking, carousing and in general living the kind of life that you might call "liberated."   Which is not to say that everything is fun and games, abuse at the hands of her husband is frequent, and it causes her to swear off relationships for decades.  She is a witness to the tumult of the 20th century, with an emphasis on the Mexican anti-clericism of the early 20th century.

Heartbreak Tango (1969) by Manuel Puig


Book Review
Heartbreak Tango (1969)
by Manuel Puig

Replaces: Grimus by Salman Rushdie

    Heartbreak Tango is not an LGBT book- I'm guessing that 1969 was a leetle early for a LGBT writer like Puig to be explicit about queer love.  Instead, Heartbreak Tango is a collection of discursive recollections about Juan Carlos Etchepare, a thoroughly average example of a young Argentinian male who inspires slavish devotion from a handful of women as he slouches towards death from tuberculosis.   It is a kalidospocpic tale, told from a half dozen different perspectives.

   I suppose the interesting perspective is that of people from the working classes of Latin America.  Latin American literature tends to work from the top down and the kind of social-realism present in Heartbreak Tango isn't something you associate with Latin American literature until the more recent past.   I'm not sad to see Grimus, Salman Rushdie's early science fiction book (and his first published novel), get the axe.  The longer Rushdie's career goes on, the less he seems like an author who needs four or five books in the canon.   Certainly Grimus, which was reviled when it was published and has hardly been resuscitated since, merely illustrates how great he would become. 

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Submission (2015) by Michel Houellebecq


Book Review
Submission (2019)
 by Michel Houellebecq

    These days, when people ask me for a favorite author, more likely than not I say it's Michel Houellebecq, even though I'm still 50/50 on pronouncing his last name accurately (It is pronounced close to Wellbeck.)  There is just something about Houellebecq and his contempt for humanity, and his repeated reliance on narrators who are  succesful men who don't have children and suffer from a creeping sense of ennui, that rings my bell.

  I actually bought a copy of Submission, his 2015 pan-European hit, in anticipation of reading his most recent book Serotonin (2019).   Submission is his book about a world where the Muslim Brotherhood, in alliance with the Socialist party, win the French parliamentary elections and take power.  When it was was published, Submission brought the usual level of controversy that Houellebecq evokes, entirely from the left, on the grounds that... well... really where do you start.  The idea that the Muslim Brotherhood could win a French election?  That the French Socialists would partner with the Muslim Brotherhood to maintain their relevance?  That Houellebecq is a racist who hates Muslims, or perhaps that he is a nihilist who doesn't fear Muslim political strength enough.   I was ready to have all those opinions, but I thought, all in all, Submission was even handed for a work of near-future speculative fiction. 

   Houellebecq has always tread close to misogyny in his fiction, and here he has common ground with his fictional would-be Muslim political class: Removing women from public life is the bedrock foundational principle for the politically savvy Muslim Brotherhood, and as the book progresses, Francois, the professor of literature who narrates Submission, is remarkably unsurprised to see the lack of resistance of French women to their removal from public life. 

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