Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Pnin (1957) by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov...never won the Novel Prize for Literature. Astonishing!
Book Review
Pnin (1957)
 by Vladimir Nabokov

  It tells you something about critics and criticism that both Boris Pasternak (1958) and Mikhail Sholokov (1965) won the Nobel Prize for Literature and Vladimir Nabokov did not.   To me, it's an appalling oversight, but perhaps understandable when one considers the sheer level of diversity that tends to be the only rule for the Nobel Prize for Literature committee.   One would think that there would be more American based English language novelist in and among the winners, but you would be wrong.  Saul Bellow won, Toni Morrison won, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck(?!?), Sinclair Lewis.... no American novelist has won the Nobel Prize for Literature since Toni Morrison.

  Pnin was the novel Nabokov wrote after Lolita, and it did a great deal to secure his financial situation and remove the idea that he might somehow be a one hit wonder.  Although it's not fair to Nabokov to dismiss Pnin as a "campus novel" the reader is faced with the essential fact that almost the entire book takes place within the confines of a small Northeastern liberal arts college where Timofey Pavolich Pnin is a non-tenured professor of Russian.

  The most striking feature of Pnin is that while the book is almost entirely about Pnin and his life on this college campus, the narrator is a different person, also a Russian emigre teaching at the same college as a tenured professor.   The exact relationship between the two people- Pnin and the un-named narrator, is hinted at by other characters but never addressed directly until the end of the book when "all is made clear."

  This give Pnin something of the taste of a mystery novel in the end, and it is this introduction of a "twist" ending that no doubt accounted for it's popularity with a general American reading Audience in the late 1950s.

The Wonderful O (1957) by James Thurber

Book Review
The Wonderful O (1957)
by James Thurber

   James Thurber wrote a series of five "short fairy-tale" books in the 1940s and 50s.   Thurber was a jack of all trades, but he is most famous for his New Yorker cartoons.  He also wrote plays and journalism.  The Wonderful O is the last of the five short fairy-tale books and the second to make it into the 1001 Books project.  The 13 Clocks is the other of his fairy-tales to make the 1001 Books list.  Both fall into the category of "children's fiction that is entertaining to adults," like Pixar movies or the Adventure Time cartoon.  Both books reminded me of something like a prose Dr. Seuss or a more benevolent Roald Dahl.

  The Wonderful O is literally about a couple of pirates who conquer a small island and systematically eradicate the letter "o" from both words and the things/animal/people those words describe.   These James Thurber fairy tales seem like a good gift for the young family who is at the stage where they are reading to their children.  The "appeals to adults" angle is a bit stretched, maybe a five in one volume where you get to read all of them at once, but having to hunt for each volume was a pain in the ass- some libraries file these under children's books and others as adult fiction/literature.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Judge and His Hangman (1950) by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Book Review
The Judge and His Hangman (1950)
by  Friedrich Dürrenmatt

    Friedrich Dürrenmatt was a Swiss author, best known for his "Brechtian drama" but he dabbled in detective fiction.  Barely one hundred pages in length, The Judge and His Hangman fuses the conventions of detective fiction with a heavily existentialist theme.   It's impossible to delve deeply into the plot without giving up what makes this story worth seeking out in the first place, but by all appearances the first 20 or so pages read like a conventional detective mystery in a Swiss town.  After the traditional opening you get plunged into a convoluted battle of wills between a dying police detective and a kind of Nietzchean super villain.

  The Judge and His Hangman can also be read as a precursor of the "Nordic Detective" novel tradition, most notably The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Absolute Beginners (1959) by Colin MacInnes

Book Review
Absolute Beginners (1959)
by Colin MacInnes

 In 2007, Viking Press published Jon Savage's Teenage, about the triumph of youth culture over the last two hundred years.  Titling the book "Teenage" was anachronistic, since he surveys back to the 19th century for the roots of youth culture, and the term "Teenage" was squarely coined in the 1950s to describe people between 16-19 living in the United States and the United Kingdom.  Absolute Beginners is the most direct example of what "Teenage" meant to the people who lived it themselves in London in 1958, which is when this book is set.

  Set before the mid 1960s triumph of rock and roll,  Narrated by an unnamed, 19 year old photographer, Absolute Beginners is a near sociological exploration of the various sets of youth culture in London in 1958.  The narrator is a sort of proto-mod, still listening to jazz.  He comes into contact with Teddy Boys, Yobs, Lesbians, West Africans and "adults" the last of whom exist in a world beyond his everyday experience.

  The plot is an early example of what you might call "teen drama" though written with the kind of sociologically informed eye that distinguishes it from something written by an actual teenager(MacInnes was 44 when he wrote Absolute Beginners).  Still, MacInnes fuses this incipient youth culture with the "angry young man" genre of 1950s England. 
   I'm not sure Absolute Beginners made a huge impression in the United States.  The copy I checked out from the library was a 3 in 1 edition of MacInnes' London Novels trilogy.  This is a sure sign of weak sales in the United States, the library doesn't even carry an independently published edition.

Monday, January 04, 2016

VideoSonics: LAST LIZARD (fka Dirty Beaches) VS News From Home—A Meditation on Chantal Akerman's 1977 Masterwork

Last Lizard F/N/A Dirty Beaches
Event Preview
VideoSonics: LAST LIZARD (fka Dirty Beaches) VS News From Home—A Meditation on Chantal Akerman's 1977 Masterwork
The Cinefamily
611 N Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles, California 90036
10 PM

From the Cinefamily website:

“The narrative of the foreigner adrift in the American landscape has always been at the heart of what I do” —Alex Zhang Hungtai (Last Lizard, Dirty Beaches).

Hungtai is Taiwanese-Canadian in origin, and an Angeleno for now—but has consistently found himself in the role foreigner, living everywhere from Honolulu to Lisbon and Berlin. These global perambulations, along with a deep and true cinephilia (most famously the films of Wong Kar-wai), have together been key influences on his art. It seems natural to us, that when asked to musically reimagine or meditate on a film of his choosing, he would find himself drawn to Chantal Akerman’s 1977 hypnotic depiction of New York City, News From Home.

Here, a young Akerman, newly relocated from Belgium to New York City, shares her persistent, thoughtful gaze with the viewer, her lense affixing itself to the movements of the great metropolis, stepping back and leaving a space for contemplation. For this special one-night “collaboration,” Last Lizard takes that place, interpreting and responding to Akerman’s images in a unique musical performance.

In Hungtai’s words, “Our narrative is never definitive, trapped between origin and destination, anchored by neither. But between point A and B lies a third vantage point, perhaps expressed by the image of the receding skyline in the finale of the film.”

Dir. Chantal Akerman, 1977- See more at:

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Cat and Mouse (1963) by Gunter Grass

Gunter Grass, Cat and Mouse cover art from the original English language translation, published in 1963.
Book Review
Cat and Mouse (1963)
 by Gunter Grass

  Cat and Mouse is the second book in Grass' Danzig Trilogy, so called because each title takes place in and around Danzig.  Unlike the other two titles in the trilogy (The Tin Drum and Dog Years) Cat and Mouse is short, around one hundred pages long.  This novella concerns the relationship between the narrator, Pilenz, and his school chum, Joachim Mahlke or "Mahlke the great."  The two attend the same gymnasium and the narrative shifts between the second and third person as Pilenz describes Mahlke's adventures.

  Much of the action takes place on a barge in the harbor, where Mahlke discovers a sunken Polish minesweeper.  He and his class mates take turns diving beneath the water and retrieving artifacts and Mahlke's obsession with the wreck is central to the symbolic world of Cat and Mouse.    The main incident occurs when Mahlke inexplicably steals the Iron Cross of a visiting Nazi soldier.  Eventually he confesses his crime both to Pilenz and the head of the school, whereupon he is expelled.  He subsequently becomes a soldier of reknown, fighting in a unit of tanks (for the Germans, in World War II) on the Eastern front.

  Returning to Danzig a hero, he is denied an opportunity to speak to the student body because of his prior disgrace, and deserts the army, ending his life at the same submerged wreck that was the locus of the opening pages of the book.  Compared to The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse is like a coda.  Oskar, the child-dwarf of The Tin Drum even makes cameo appearances in Cat and Mouse to remind the reader of what has come before.   Cat and Mouse lacks the elaborate narrative pyrotechnics of The Tin Drum, indeed it functions as an almost wholly conventional novella and fits squarely within the 20th century "coming of age" genre with only the setting in Danzig to distinguish itself from a thousand other books with similar concerns.

Junky (1953) by William Burroughs

Original cover of  Junky by William Burroughs
Book Review
Junky (1953)
by William Burroughs

    It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that there are multiple similarities between my reading habits and the drug taking habits of a heroin addict.  Like a heroin addict, I'm constantly forced to search for books.  This entire project is an attempt to at least blunt the endless quest for new material.  Unlike a heroin addict, I don't usually have to pay for books, thank god for libraries.  I read Junky by William Burroughs for the first time in high school and since then I've re-read it on several occasions, to the point where I actually remember lines and passages from the book in quieter moments.

    In high school  Burroughs and his beat cohorts served as literary inspiration for several years of experimentation with various substances. I was always partial to Burroughs as compared to Kerouac or Ginsberg.  Something about his icy aloofness and detachment from his surroundings.  Burroughs was famously the scion of the family whose patriarch invented the Burroughs adding machine.  In later years this became the foundation of his screeds against "power" and "technology" and it's invasive role in American life.  He was quite prophetic in this regard, anticipating decades of counter-culture and living long enough to see himself proved right about almost everything he held dear.

  Junky was his first published work, and as you can see from the cover above, it was not published as literature, but rather as a cheap exploitation novel, paired with a second book written from the perspective of a narcotics interdiction agent.  Junky actually traces the emergence of the anti-drug hysteria in America.  By the end, the Burroughs character is getting ready to depart Mexico City for points south, and he shares with the reader the passage of many of the first wave of anti-drug laws which would wreak so much havoc on the lives of users and dealers.

  Unlike his later works, there is nothing experimental about Junky.  It's a straight forward narrative about a guy like Burroughs who likes his drugs.  In order to afford his drugs, he has to commit crimes, either rolling drunks on the subway or dealing drugs.  Although Junky is often a departure point for those who go on to use drugs, it's hard to call Junky a romantic obscuring of Junky reality.  Quite the opposite in fact,  Junky gives the reader the straight dope on the life and times of a hard core heroin addict, and it this fundamentally accurate take on the emerging counter culture that accounts for its enduring power.

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