Sunday, October 31, 2010

Recent Reading Roundup 28

October was a good reading month for me, and November may continue in that fashion, if Richard Hughes's The Fox in the Attic turns out to be as good as its first third promises.  In the meantime, however, here are the books I've read this month.
  1. Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada - It seems that every few years the English-speaking world discovers a European author whose works on the Holocaust--preferably published posthumously, after their death at the hands of the Nazis--it can celebrate as the latest, most authentic, and most heart-rending exploration of What It Was Really Like.  I skipped Irene Nemirovsky, and felt rather good about that choice when the ecstatic praise for her novel Suite Francaise gave way to foot-shuffling at the internalized anti-semitism of her earlier novels, and later revelations of her own affinity towards fascism.  I was all set to give Hans Fallada the same treatment when Bookslut's Jessa Crispin began raving about his novels Every Man Dies Alone (also published as Alone in Berlin) and Wolf Among Wolves.  For the first hundred pages of Every Man, it seemed that I had made a mistake, as Fallada, whose altercations with the Nazis during their rise to power and WWII eventually led to his commitment to an insane asylum, seemed to be writing German apologia.  His characters are either innocents who are just trying to get through the war without losing anyone they love, or greedy, lascivious villains, and it just so happens that the former are apolitical, and, if they are members of the Nazi party, have only joined it in order to get by, while the latter are devout Nazis.  As the novel opens, working class couple Otto and Anna Quangel receive the news that their son was killed on the front, while postwoman Eva Kluge learns from her ex-husband just what their son's work for the SS storm troopers entails.  They vow to rebel, in their own small ways.  The Quangels begin distributing anonymous postcards critical of Hitler, the Nazis, and the war, while Eva resigns from the party and leaves Berlin for the countryside.  Meanwhile, the Quangels' neighbors, the Persickes, plot to rob an elderly Jewish neighbor, and an acquaintance of Otto's, Emil Borkhausen, blackmails Eva's ex-husband Enno, who has come under the attention of the Gestapo.

    The further I got into Every Man Dies Alone, however, the more complicated and thought-provoking the novel became.  The middle parts of the novel are mostly concerned with the battle of wits between Borkhausen, Enno, Gestapo Inspector Escherich, who, under pressure to discover the distributor of the Quangels' postcards, uses Enno as a patsy, and Frau Haberle, a woman whom Enno cons into protecting him by playing on her antipathy for the Gestapo.  It's a dance driven by fear and selfishness--Esherich knows that Enno is innocent but is terrified of his superiors, Frau Haberle tries to get Borkhausen off Enno's back but is undone by his stupidity and short-sightedness, Enno himself tries to play the noble rebel, but quickly reveals himself to be greedy and cowardly.  These chapters read like a grimmer version of the middle segments of The Master and Margarita, in which characters struggle in vain to discover just the right sort of lies with which to placate a vast bureaucratic machine that devours and guilty and innocent alike, only to realize that there is no right way to behave, that the only way to survive is through luck or power.  It's a take on Nazi Germany--as a very, very, very dark farce--that is unlike anything I've ever read before, and it achieves what the earlier chapters of the novel put my off by attempting, making the German characters, guilty and innocent alike, seem pitiable without sweeping their complicity in their current predicament under the rug.  In its final third, the novel returns to the Quangels, whose luck finally runs out and who find themselves imprisoned, tortured, and subjected to a trial whose outcome is a foregone conclusion.  At the same time, the war turns against Germany, and incursions into its territory, including bombings of Berlin itself, occur with increasing frequency.  That the Nazi regime is crumbling, however, makes no difference to the Quangels (who aren't even aware of this fact, entombed as they are in Gestapo prisons), nor is it their resistance that brings the war to an end, as the novel stresses when it reveals how few people the seditious postcards reached and affected.  That the Quangels are both doomed and ineffective injects a measure of realism to their principled resistance in the last days of their lives, and tempers the righteousness of the novel's final chapters.

    It's a bit of a shame, therefore, that Every Man Dies Alone ends with an epilogue that returns to Eva Kluge, who has disowned her son and adopted Borkhausen's, a runaway whom she is teaching good values and who represents the bright future of Germany after the defeat of the Nazis.  It's a return to the stark division between Good and Bad Germans of the novel's early chapters, which the intervening segments had worked so hard to complicate, and a reminder that Every Man Dies Alone was written not for foreign readers but for Germans in the immediate wake of WWII, and is thus a little more consoling than a reader in 2010 would like.  That said, the novel was written in only 24 days, and Fallada died soon after completing it, so it can certainly be forgiven a few rough patches, especially in light of the power of much of its narrative.

  2. The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant - This is the third collection of Gallant's stories that NYRB Classics has published, containing previously uncollected work spanning twenty years in the career of the Canadian-born writer, whose affinity for France eventually led her to relocate to Paris.  Some of the stories in the collection are set there, and focus on the difficulty of immigrants trying to adapt to the city, and on life in the outer reaches of its bohemian society, but others follow characters in Canada, the US, and elsewhere in the world.  Early stories feel very typical of post-war, post-modern short story writers, focusing on strained marriages, lost children, and lonely women, who are brought to life with shocking deftness and in prose so beautiful that it rivals that of the author of the collection's foreword, Jhumpa Lahiri.  In "Autumn Day," the narrator is a young army wife who has joined her husband in post-war France and is renting a room in an out-of-the-way farm while they wait for a housing assignment.  The farm is the setting to her introduction to Europe, to the still-painful ravages of the war, to marriage, and to sex.  In "Thieves and Rascals," a couple is informed by their daughter's boarding school that she has run off with a boy for a weekend, and is being sent home.  They spend the day waiting for her, trying to understand her behavior, and bumping up against the predatory nature of relationships between men and women.  In the title story, the narrator, a music teacher who ran off to Paris years ago, is joined by her sister, now wealthy after the death of their parents, and introduces her to bohemian Paris, causing a clash of cultural and sexual expectations.  In "Bernadette," a liberal Montreal couple thoughtlessly condescend to their poor, uneducated maid, but are brought up short when she turns up pregnant.  In all of these stories, Gallant hones her sentences into fine stiletto knives, crafting images, characters, and sharp observations with only a few well-chosen words.  Later stories, written in the 60s and 70s, shift into more experimental styles and discussions of history, such as the French-Algerian war or the French labor protests in the late 60s, that I have less affinity for, and I thus found these less affecting, but they are still magnificently written, and I will certainly be seeking out NYRB's other collections of Gallant's writing.

  3. The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov - There was a time, after reading Lolita and Pale Fire, when I was set to make my way through Nabokov's whole bibliography, but somehow that conviction faded away.  The Luzhin Defense is the first Nabokov novel I've read in years, and it more than whets my appetite for more of his writing even though, as the author notes in his foreword, it's a novel most beloved by readers who don't care for his other work.  I can see how that would be.  The Luzhin Defense, which follows the short, sad life of the eponymous chess grandmaster, is a great deal less coy than Lolita and Pale Fire.  There's still a lot of game-playing here--quite literally, of course, and Nabokov makes much of chess imagery and images of game-playing when he describes Luzhin's early life as an unloving, remote child who only comes to life when he discovers chess, and later his attempts, as an adult, to relinquish the game after his obsession with it leads to a nervous breakdown, and to build a normal life with a woman who falls deeply in love with him.  But the one thing Nabokov doesn't play with is the reader's emotions and expectations.  Unlike Lolita and Pale Fire, it's clear what we're meant to be feeling and how we're meant to react to the characters.  Even straightforward Nabokov, however, is pretty twisty by everyone else's standards, and the novel's tone and register change swiftly, from tragedy to dark comedy and back again, as Luzhin's detachment from reality is used alternately for humor and pathos, and as that detachment begins to shade into mental illness.  This is all handled with such incredible skill that I feel more than a little presumptuous praising it--does the world need me to tell it that Vladimir Nabokov was a damn good writer?  Still, he was, and in the space of only 200 pages brings Luzhin, his wife, and her uncomprehending family to vivid life.  It's also refreshing, given the ubiquity of the sports narrative even in stories about cerebral exercises like chess (for example in The Player of Games, which I read immediately before The Luzhin Defense), to read a novel that doesn't treat its main character's complete immersion in a game, and their inability to deal with life outside of the confines of that game, as something normal and healthy.  I don't know if liking The Luzhin Defense means that I won't like the rest of Nabokov's writing, but I'm certainly feeling motivated to find out.

  4. Fantastic Night by Stefan Zweig - This is an Israeli-published collection of some of Zweig's short fiction, including the novellas Fantastic Night, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Chess Story, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, and Amok.  After loving Zweig's last work and only novel, Beware of Pity, I was shocked to discover that there are some who consider him sentimental and populist, because it seemed that Pity took what could have been a sentimental story and made something sharper out of it.  These novellas demonstrate that Zweig was not always so clever.  Chess Story is the best of the bunch, describing a match between a mercenary, uncouth grandmaster, and an older man, a former dilettante who immersed himself in chess in order to survive torture by the Nazis.  Its comparison of the two players' attitudes towards the game is interesting, but carries a definite whiff of class prejudice.  The older player represents the old world--he was a lawyer for the now-defunct Austrian aristocracy and was tortured because he had knowledge of their concealed money--while his opponent comes from a working class background, and is described as a boor for whom chess is but a means to achieving fame and fortune.  Still, this is by far the least sentimental story in the collection, whose characters are forever vowing eternal love or service, preparing to die for their love, for their sins, or for shame, and writing each other long, overwrought letters about these experiences (all but one story in the collection has a frame narrative, usually a letter or manuscript).  It's also a little disturbing just how frequently the suffering characters are women who do not behave in a socially acceptable manner.  In Unknown Woman, the title character can only consummate her love for the recipient of her letter, a wealthy playboy, by convincing him that she is a prostitute, which eventually leads to her and her child's deaths.  In Amok, a doctor in a German colony first insults, and then vainly tries to save the life of a woman who has become pregnant out of wedlock.  Zweig was a product of his time so I can't blame him for seeing this sort of behavior as beyond the pale (or for recognizing that his society did) but as a product of mine, his emphasis on women's inappropriate expressions of their sexuality, and on the suffering they endure because of them, makes me even less likely to buy into the sentimentality of his stories.

  5. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin - OK, I give in.  For the better part of a decade I've been left out of the party that fandom has been holding for Le Guin.  I admired her, to be sure, and liked a lot of her writing, but I didn't quite feel the overpowering love that a lot of fans seem to have for her writing.  Even The Left Hand of Darkness, which I liked a great deal, left me with some reservations.  Now I've read The Dispossessed and, yeah, I get it, because this is an incredible novel--beautifully written, inventive, and still, forty years after its publication, so very different from any work of science fiction I've ever read.  Shevek is a member of a utopian group that, nearly 200 years ago, left its home on the planet Urras for a hardscrabble but hopefully egalitarian life on its moon, Anarres.  A physicist whose work has long been stymied by jealous colleagues, and whose desire to collaborate with Urrasti colleagues is viewed with distrust, Shevek travels Urras in order to complete his work, to learn about Urras, and to spread the word about Anarresti way of life.  What's most remarkable about The Dispossessed is how effortless it seems when really, Le Guin is doing so many things at the same time: laying out the founding philosophy of Shevek's society, describing the ways in which that philosophy is implemented in every aspect of Anarresti life, and the ways in which human nature subverts and corrupts it, describing various nations on Urras and their reactions to and perceptions of Anarres, as well as the reactions that individuals and groups on Urras have to Shevek's presence, and finally, telling Shevek's own story, from his childhood to his meeting with his partner, to the early stages of his career, to his growing disillusionment with the scientists and officials around him, and his realization that even an anarchist society will eventually develop structures and hierarchies, to his decision to travel to Urras.  All of these elements blend together into a story that is compulsively readable even though hardly anything exciting happens--Shevek's career goes through ups and downs, he's separated from his partner and child and then reunited with them, he is alternately entranced and disgusted by life on Urras.  I also appreciated the complexity of Le Guin's construction of both Urrasti and Anarresti societies.  Though it's clear that she's on the latter's side (and though I think that in one respect, at least, her construction of utopia strains credulity--I don't believe that simply setting out to create a society free of racial and sexual prejudice is enough to abolish it from both the conscious and subconscious levels, as Anarres has done), she doesn't shy away from showing us what's good about Urras, and what's bad about Anarres, and from concluding that even the kindest and most fair society needs to be shaken up from time to time.  The Dispossessed ends on as low-key a note as it began with, but nevertheless I found myself wishing that it had gone on for much longer, so that I could spend more time with Shevek, and on Urras and Anarres.

6 comments:

Alexander said...

Nice write-up, and glad to see you've been won around to the greatness of Le Guin. A pity that by my standards and that of most readers she hasn't written anything quite as good as The Dispossessed, but a lot of her stuff is worth a look. Even aside from all the great stuff she does with characters and emotion, on the strength of her abilities with worldbuilding in The Dispossessed alone Le Guin is probably in the top five speculative fiction authors.

Hmm, Luzhin Defense is one of the Nabokov book that I haven't read, although I've enjoyed pretty much all his books so far. To the library!

The other things you mention are less familiar to me, but certainly seem to have their intriguing elements.

Anonymous said...

And now you could review Samuel Delany's review of The Dispossesed... :) Actually that would be interesting to read.

Athena Andreadis said...

Le Guin herself had reservations about The Left Hand of Darkness which she voiced in one of her essay collections. She's a truly nuanced writer whose cumulative grip grows: her essays and short stories are critical, not just her novels (as is the case with Virginia Woolf, whom Le Guin uses consciously as a model). Some of her non-SF/F works are incredibly complex and moving (The Sea Road). So is the necklace of stories that rounds out The Earthsea novel pentalogy (Tales from Earthsea).

Rich Horton said...

Many people will know of THE LUZHIN DEFENSE as simply THE DEFENSE -- I'm not sure why the first English translations were under that title. (As with most (probably all) English translations of the Nabokov, this one was done "in collaboration" with the author. It's an interesting (to me) question why such a great writer of English prose didn't do the translations all by himself, though perhaps it's simply that he was too engaged in his "new" work.) Perhaps the current title is in response to the 2000 movie, THE LUZHIN DEFENCE.

THE DEFENSE is one of my favorite of Nabokov's Russian novels, though I will confess that I prefer almost all of the English novels to the Russian novels. (Which is not to sat that the Russian ones aren't magnificent as well.)

JP said...

Have you read 'The Lathe Of Heaven'? That was the novel that convinced me that Le Guin was a writer I could respect.

ibmiller said...

Just finished The Dispossessed, which took me way longer than it should have - but it's just as powerful as you say here. I especially love the structural power of the book - the parallel narratives which reveal information just at the precise emotional moments. The complexities and heartbreak of the characters - their moral nobility and failures - are really what bring me to it. I've liked Le Guin's fantasy before, but The Dispossessed really sold me hard on her scifi.

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