Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Worstward Ho (1983) by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett
Nobel Prize for Literature winner Samuel Beckett
Book Review
Worstward Ho (1983)
 by Samuel Beckett

    Samuel Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, and he didn't die until 1989, giving him two decades to exist as a veritable literary saint on earth.  Samuel Beckett is a colossus of 20th century literature and drama.  He has a direct link to James Joyce, the high priest of high modernism, and his own work represents a bridge between the modern and post-modern,   He also was a key avatar in the linguistic turn as it manifested itself both in literature and academia.  Finally, he is an apostle of minimalism, a movement that continues to inform large swaths of varied artistic disciplines.

   At the same time, he was never a huge popular figure.  In popular culture, most people don't know who he is, and if they do, he's vaguely associated with the play, Waiting for Godot- two guys waiting for a person who never arrives.  In popular culture, Beckett is a Simpsons reference.   You would expect Samuel Beckett, who died in 1989, to on a cusp of a revival- 30 years from death represents a generational opportunity to revive the titles of an Author and introduce them to a totally new generation, one who need to purchase copies of the author's titles.

  Among the critical/serious/academic class, Beckett is a saint and participation in that culture requires knowledge of his career high-points, but it's not like he is a hot topic on campus.  Beckett is a given.  He's been a given for a generation.  He was a given in the Bay Area in the early 1990's, where I took a girl on a first date to a Berkeley Repertory Theater production of Waiting for Godot.   Amazingly, that title doesn't make the 1001 Books list, probably because all plays- from Shakespeare onward are excluded from the 1001 Books definition of a "book."   Even without Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett is a key figure in the 1001 Books list, with Worstward Ho the last of his eight titles.

  Murphy, his first title on the 1001 Books list, was published in 1938, giving his included titles a date range of 45 years!  My recommendation, having now read all eight books on the list, is to focus on early Beckett.  Of middle and later Beckett, it can be summarized as "difficult to understand."  Unless you have some vested interest in understanding Samuel Beckett, it's his early novels- Murphy and Malloy, specifically which are the only books that are likely to bring the casual reader something like pleasure.

  It's impossible to pass from the topic of Samuel Beckett without addressing existentialism, an attitude which his entire oeuvre exudes.  Existentialism suffuses much of art after World War II, but Becektt is one of the few artists whose work fully anticipated existentialism before it existed. The idea of the meaningless of existence animates all of his work, and there is some irony in the fact that a man so obsessed with emptiness could create work which has proved to be so full of meaning.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Fools of Fortune (1983) by William Trevor

Book Review
Fools of Fortune
 by William Trevor

  I feel like the Anglo Irish aristocracy is dramatically over-represented in the original 1001 Books list.  Even granting Irish status as the first "colonial" environment and the attendant proposition that Ireland was also the location of the first "post-colonial" literature, the Anglo Irish (as supposed to the Irish themselves) were at best a highly parasitic bunch of land barons.  That they produced excellent novelists is no surprise, since they were both wealthy enough to have the time, energy and education to write and they were also semi-despised outsiders who were ultimately largely expelled.

  Still, when you compare the 20th century Irish colonial experience to places in Africa and Asia, the Irish tend to come bottom of the table. Consider that as of 1983, the 1001 Books list has not a single book by a Chinese speaking author and the first novel on the list ABOUT China is Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard.   Meanwhile, I count as many as 15 novels on the original 1001 Books list that come from Anglo Irish writers.   I'm not counting the books of IRISH authors like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

 Fools of Fortune is such a late example of the Anglo Irish experience that it almost reads as an exercise in historical fiction.  He traces the fortunes of a very liberal Anglo Irish family through the story of Louis, a child at the beginning of the book.  His family owns a mill, but is relatively unique in that the father and family going back two generations are supporters of Irish independence, to the point where the Grandfather had given away his ancestral estate to the farmers- a highly unusual act.

     The action picks up during the time of "the troubles" during and after World War I, where a sometimes brutal war of independence was waged and the English behaved, and were treated like, an occupying army.  Louis' father learns this the hard way, when he is murdered by a "Black and Tan" in reprisal for his support for the Irish independence movement, embodied by Michael Collins, who appears in Fools of Fortune as a minor character.

      The murder of Louis' father at the hands of the English occupying forces sets in motion a series of events one might expect from a 20th century novel, leavened somewhat by a love story between Louis and his English cousin, Marianne. What seems to be a highly Louis centered narrative suddenly switches half way through, as we learn about events from the eyes of Marianne, Louis' beloved.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Shame (1983) by Salman Rushdie

Ali Bhutto appears as Iskander Harappa in Shame, the 1983 novel by Salman Rushdie.
Book Review
Shame (1983)
 by Salman Rushdie

  You don't have to know about the history of Pakistan, but it helps, because Shame, Rushdie's third novel, is a magically realistic take on the tragic friendship between Zulifkar Ali Bhutto (Iskander Harappa) and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (General Raza Hyder).  As recounted in The Struggle for Pakistan by Ayesha Jalal (2014),  these two figures ran Pakistan successively between 1971 and 1988.  Bhutto was the cosmopolitan playboy who championed "Islamic Socialism" and Zia, as he was known, was responsible for creating Pakistan as an Islamic Republic.

  Like The House of Spirits, another work of magical realism published in the early 1980's featuring a fictionalized take on the troubled 20th century history of a small Latin American nation (Chile), Shame has a heavy dose of realism- dark realism- mixed in with the by now familiar bag of magical tricks to spice up the grim reality of 20th century Pakistani history.    Anyone who has read both Midnight's Children, his 1981 break out hit, and Shame is likely to spot continuities and similarities.  Rushdie's confidence as an author is on full display in Shame, with several interludes by the narrator revealing that he (the narrator) is either Rushdie himself or someone so close to Rushdie and his life experience as to make the difference negligible

  It's difficult to see Shame as anything other then a kind of second chapter of Midnight's Children, and it's fair to say that there is nothing wrong with that, when one considers how intoxicating Rushdie's brand of magic realism proved after that novel was published.  But Rushdie doesn't break any new thematic ground in Shame, and if you consider that The House of the Spirits was published just the year before, it might be fair to ask whether the tenets of magical realism were already becoming cliche when Shame was published in 1983.

The Piano Teacher (1983) by Elfriede Jelinek

Image result for isabelle huppert piano teacher
Isabelle Huppert gave a memorable performance as the title character in the movie version of the The Piano Teacher, released in 2001;

Book Review
The Piano Teacher (1983)
by Elfriede Jelinek

  I am familiar with the movie version, memorably starring Isabelle Huppert and directed by Michael Haneke (2001).  The movie is compelling stuff, a twisted pyscho sexual "thriller" as that word applies to a French art film.   The book I found less emotionally compelling, but more interesting intellectually.    I'm not a big fan of BDSM, but I'm not frightened by it either.  My position is that it's a normal part of the range of human sexuality, perhaps not as benign as the LGBTQ rainbow of affiliations, but a step above outright reprehensible expressions of sexuality like pedophilia or bestiality.   The difference is the presence of consent on the part of both partners.  It's also, to me, the most interesting part of the BDSM world, the contractual nature of it all.

  If you are unfamiliar with the BDSM world, BDSM is more then just restraints, whips and chains (though indeed those props figure in the plot of The Piano Teacher.)  The more involved areas of the BDSM world typically involve written contracts with explicit language concerning the rights and responsibilities of the parties concern.  The contracts, of course, regard agreements of the sort where one party is essentially voluntarily enslaved by the other, usually with the explicit purpose of sexual gratification on the part of the both parties.

  In the professional BDSM world, professional dominatrix's are often called "Mistresses," and it reflects the common posture of a woman dominating a man, and being paid for it.   The Piano Teacher, set in Vienna in the mid 1970's, is a world away from the contemporary world of BDSM, but as the birthplace of Freudianism, it is a place very much at the center of BDSM culture.   Much of the theory and practice that underlays this area of human sexuality was formed explicitly either following or opposed to classic Freudian theory regarding the relationship between families, sexual pleasure and death obsession.  This trilogy is also a good summation of the themes of The Piano Teacher, about a soon-to-be spinster who lives with her domineering mother in a small Viennnese apartment, with the daughter supporting both with her work as a piano teacher.

  Freudian motifs dominate The Piano Teacher from start to finish: unfulfilled ambitions, troubled familial relationships, an obsession with the obliteration of the self through self destructive activity, The Piano Teacher is a panoply of neuroses. 

Monday, February 06, 2017

A Boy'a Own Story (1982) by Edmund White

Author Edmund White
Book Review
A Boy'a Own Story (1982)
 by Edmund White

  A Boy's Own Story is the first of Edmund White's trilogy of semi auto-biographical novels about his experience of growing up gay in the American mid-West in the period after World War II.  A Boy's Own Story is set in and around Cincinnati, where White grew up the only son of divorced parents, his father a wealthy business man, and his Mother an emotionally needy divorcee largely unprepared for life as a single woman.  In light of recent progress in the field of LGBTQ rights, it is shocking that such a vanilla gay coming of age story written by a privileged, wealthy, white male wasn't published until 1982.

  A Boy's Own Story is of course set decades before publication, during the child hood of the now adult Edmund White, but it's easy to slip into thinking that A Boy's Own Story was published in the late 1960's or early 1970's .   White is frank about the sexual aspect of being young and gay.  Starting from chapter one, where he is initiated into the world of gay sex by a younger friend of the family (he calls it "corn-holing",) through the time the narrator spends as a young man in Cincinnati.

  The themes White raises about the masculinity of American men are of interest not just to LGBTQ readers, but to anyone wanting to learn about the awareness of sexuality that young men develop as they enter adolescence.   White is a hugely insightful writer, and his prose elevates the often mundane details into real art.

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