Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985) by Patrick Susskind

Book Review
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985)
 by Patrick Susskind

       Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is what you call an international hit, written in German, set in 18th century France with an entirely French speaking cast of characters, and made into a feature film by Dreamworks, directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run).  Unfortunately, the last and most important piece of that combination- the film by Dreamworks, was a huge bomb, and so Perfume: The Story of a Murderer has been denied the kind of eternal after life claimed by books made into hit films like the English Patient or Remains of the Day.

    Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is a foundling, abandoned in 18th century Paris by a mother who is quickly executed for the infanticide of Jean's older siblings.  He is raised in a tannery, where he survives against all odds and comes into possession of his greatest gift, a preternatural sense of smell.  He escapes the tannery for an apprenticeship with a declining Parisian Perfumery, and the story really takes off from there.  Oh- and also- Grenouille is also a murderer, fond of strangling nubile red heads.

  You can't be accused of revealing that fact- since the novel does in the subtitle. The story is compelling enough, with a twist at the end, but the real attractions are the portions describing the 18th century perfume industry in France.  Personally, I found this description more compelling than the story of Juan-Baptiste Grenouille, who, after all, is a murderer, and hardly a wit besides that.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Wittgenstein's Nephew (1988) by Thomas Bernhard

Book Review
Wittgenstein's Nephew (1988) 
by Thomas Bernhard

   German author Thomas Bernhard isn't a household name in America, but the editors of the 1001 Books list sure were big fans- five titles on the first edition, trimmed to three in the next.  Wittgenstein's Nephew is one of the three keepers, probably because it's the only Bernhard novel where he displays anything like recognizable human emotion.

  Like his other books, Wittgenstein's Nephew is a novella, not a novel- barely a hundred pages long.  It tells the story of Bernhard himself, and his friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, nephew of the philosopher, both descended from the same Viennese industrialist family.  Bernhard and Wittgenstein because both endure lengthy hospitalizations, Bernhard for a lung condition, and Wittgenstein for his madness.  A major theme in Wittgenstein's Nephew is Bernhard's contention that Paul Wittgenstein's madness has a genius/artistic quality that elevates him among his wealthy kin. His book charts Wittgenstein's decline as he gives away his fortune and then faces repeated commitments for his outrageous public behavior. 

  Of course, Bernhard is a trenchant critic of bourgeois society, and his exaltation of Paul Wittgenstein is also his contempt for respectable Austrian society.

Monday, March 06, 2017

The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) by Thomas Pynchon

Image result for the crying of lot 49
The muted trumpet symbol from The Crying of Lot 49 is a recognizable calling card for Pynchon fans and their progeny.
Book Review
The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)
 by Thomas Pynchon

  The Crying of Lot 49 is usually the only Thomas Pynchon book that a college undergraduate is likely to come across during survey level literature classes.  That is because, unlike all other of Pynchon's books, it is brief- a novella, not a novel.  It's not exactly a puzzling or unjustified selection, but it seems strange to include Pynchon's second published work when his first book, V, published in 1963, is pretty much a sprawling masterpiece.   Perhaps the choice is a nod to the truth that no normal reader is going to read anything Pynchon wrote except The Crying of Lot 49.

  The Crying of Lot 49 is often described as an early post-modern masterpiece AND a knowing parody of post-modernism, and both descriptions reflect that is hard to say, what, exactly, is going on in The Crying of Lot 49- both on the surface and underneath.  On the surface, The Crying of Lot 49 is the story of Oedipus Maas, who is appointed executor of her mysterious ex-boy friend's sprawling estate.  The estate includes an enormous stamp collection which features the only known evidence of two ultra secret private postal services that flourished in the early modern period.   Maas travels a very recognizable early 1960's California, encountering Beatles-style rock bands and Kesey style new-age gurus.

  Pynchon's accurate characterization of the psychedelic 1960's as it was happening is the most astonishing part of The Crying of Lot 49.  It's hard to believe that it was written in 1965, rather than 1985.  

Dictionary of the Khazars (1984) by Milorad Pavić

Book Review
Dictionary of the Khazars (1984)
 by  Milorad Pavić

  Producing a novel by blending source materials which combine facts with fiction to create a fictitious narrative of real history has become a well-established rode to both critical and popular success.   Most recently, this vibrant genre has been highlighted by English author Hilary Mantel, who became the first woman to win the Booker Prize twice, both for works which fit within this description. Dictionary of the Khazars was an early success in this area, the work of Serbian author and Nobel Prize for Literature-also ran Milorad Pavic.   His success with Dictionary of the Khazars is attributable both to the book itself and for the market in fiction translated into English.  The development of popular and critical audience for fiction translated into English is as old as those audiences themselves, but certainly the sprawling international publishing industry of the 1980's and 1990's, together with similarly international film studios, elevated the area of translated fiction from a backwater to a major player at the intersection of popular and serious fiction.

 Dictionary of the Khazars revolves around the historical but poorly understood Khazar polity of the early middle ages.  Located on the plains north of the Black Sea, their leader famously converted to Judaism for reasons which remain obscure.   Dictionary of the Khazars takes the form of three overlapping but conflicting encyclopedias referencing the (fictional) historical event of the Khazar Polemics, where a Christian, Muslim and Jewish wise man debated the interpreted a dream for the leader of the Khazars. with the winner being allowed to convert the entire Khazar people.

  Not surprisingly, the three different encyclopedia's differ substantially, beginning with each claiming victory for their particularly faith and obscuring the existence of the other participants in the Khazar polemic.  Certain figures, notably the Princess Ateh, recur, others are specific to one of the three books.  Pavic provides academic annotation in the true style of high post-modernism, to the point where historically attested "fact" are interchangeable with authorial created fiction.

  Certain descriptions extend into the procedurally generated fantastic realism of Italo Calvino.  Particularly, some of the broader descriptions of "Khazar" society echo certain portions of Calvino's Invisible Cities (1972).

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984) by Jose Saramago

Book Review
The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984)
 by Jose Saramago

  Like many other non-English language authors in the 1001 Books list, Saramago really nailed down his English language audience with a Nobel Prize for Literature win, in 1998.   Before then he was obviously highly regarded, but not an instant success- The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis wasn't published in English translation until 1991.   I've read that Saramago is often grouped as a magical realist, but The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is heavy on the realism and contains no magic whatsoever.  Rather, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is about the man in the title, a Brazilian doctor of Portuguese citizenship, who returns home to Lisbon, 16 years after his departure, with Europe on the cusp of World War II.

  Portugal at the time had already established it's own authoritarian government, headed by Antonio Salazar.  Salazar was pro-Franco, even before Franco existed, and he was able to keep Portugal neutral during the Second World War.  Ricardo Reis does very little during the year of his death.  He seduces a char woman and woos a young woman from an upper class family.  He takes long walks, fills in for another doctor who is sick, and reads the newspaper, from which he learns of the events sending Europe spiraling towards the Second World War.   The only "action" in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is a scene where he is gently interrogated by the Portuguese police.   Also, he knocks up the charwoman, but that is about it.

  My favorite portions of this book were Saramago's description of the char woman cleaning Reis' apartment and then falling into his arms for bouts of passionate love making, a circumstance which reminded me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry starts sleeping with a woman he met while she was cleaning his apartment.

Hawksmoor (1985) by Peter Ackroyd

Book Review
Hawksmoor (1985)
by Peter Ackroyd

  Author Peter Ackroyd is the kind of writer who is so successful and prolific that one suspects him of having a staff of unrecognized assistants who crank the stuff out for him.  His fame doesn't quite span the Atlantic ocean.   I'm familiar with his non-fiction works about the city of London and the work of Charles Dickens, but I was surprised to learn that his output is nearly as prolific in the world of fiction.

  And, I'm not quite sure how to say this politely, but Ackroyd seems to turned into a bit of a hack in his old age.  Example:  Between 1999 and 2010, he published seven novels, all of which had titles which started with the word "The."  Perhaps that isn't conclusive proof that an author has become a hack, but I would say it does serve as a proper supporting exhibit to support that proposition.   Ackroyd, I would imagine, is a victim of success and his later day decline shouldn't obscure what got him to the top in the first place: Several excellent works of non-fiction about the area of London and it's inhabitants, and Hawksmoor, his excellent novel of "meta-historical" fiction about the construction of several 18th century churches and some modern murders which take place in those same churches.

  Ackroyd alternates his narration between that of 18th century architect Nicholas Dyer (also some sort of satanist) and several modern narrators, including the police detective, Nicholas Hawksmoor. It should go, almost without saying, that in any work of fiction by Ackroyd, London plays a starring role.   That is the case with Hawksmoor, where Ackroyd alternates his descriptions of the 18th century, post-fire London of Nicholas Dyer with modern London.

  The chapter narrated by 18th century architect-satanist Nicolas Dyer are written in the style of 18th century fiction, with unfamiliar diction and capitalization.  The spelling and orthography are standardized, but even if you are familiar with the style of 18th century prose fiction, Dyer is likely to keep you gasping for air. 

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