John Klassen

Capsule reviews/summaries of a miscellany of books read July-August, 2106.

John Horne Burns (1916-1953): The Gallery

This first novel, published in 1947, is set largely in Naples in August, 1944 during the Allied, mainly US, occupation while war against the Germans continued to the north. The novel was widely acclaimed for its uncompromising portrayal of the motives and methods of the occupation and its effects on individuals, and morals, on both sides. Burns pulled no punches in his evaluation of American actions:

"I remember the crimes we committed against the Italians, as I watched them in Naples. In the broadest sense we promised the Italians security and democracy if they came over to our side. All we actually did was to knock the hell out of their system and give them nothing to put in its place. And one of the most tragic spectacles in all history was the Italians' faith in us--for a little while, until we disabused them of it. It seemed to me that like the swindle of all humanity, and I wondered if perhaps we weren't all lost together. Collective and social decency didn't exist in Naples in August, 1944."

Chapters alternate between an unnamed first-person American narrator who follows the war-time path that Burns himself did working for military intelligence in Casablanca, Algiers, Naples; these are interspersed with third-person narratives of the experiences of unconnected individuals: a nurse, a chaplain and priest, enlisted men, officers, an Italian girl and her family. The multiple perspectives and stories form a whole that works very well as a searing portrait of the interactions and societal structures of the time and place and the effects of war.

In the end, despite the pessimistic pictures that he painted, Burns remained optimistic about the future of the human race through the the power of love: "I remember that in Naples I learned that everything in life is a delusion, that all happiness is simply a desire for, and unhappiness a repining of, love."

Roberto Bolano (1953-2003): The Last Interview and Other Conversations

This slim paperback (120 pages) is one of a series put out by Melville House Publishing, based on "last interviews" with a number of well-known writers. This one has a thirty page introduction on Bolano as a person and as a writer, plus the texts of three different interviews. I found it interesting, although I'm sure all the interviews are available on-line if one wanted to do the work. Perhaps the $20 price tag is payment for the convenience of the compilation.  

Some vignettes from the interviews:

Bolano on literary criticism: "...I think it is very important. I view criticism as a literary creation, not just as the bridge that unites the reader with the writer. Literary critics, if they do not assume themselves to be the reader, are also throwing everything overboard. The interesting thing about literary critics, and that is where I ask for creativity from literary criticism, creativity at all levels is that he assumes himself to be the reader, an endemic reader capable of arguing a reading, or proposing diverse readings, like something completely different from what criticism tends to be, which is like an exegesis or diatribe."

A comment from one of Bolano's characters that reflects a theme in much of his writing: "One had the moral obligation to be responsible for one's actions and for one's words but also for one's silence."

Bolano an Kafka: "Kafka's literature, aside form being the best work, the highest literary work of the twentieth century, is of an extreme morality and of an extreme gentility, things that usually do not go together..."

Asked to name five books that have marked his life, Bolano replied: "In reality five books are more like 5,000. I'll mention these only as the tip of the spear: Don Quixote by Cervantes, Moby Dick by Melvile. The complete works of Borges, Hopscotch by Cortazar, A Confederacy of Dunces by Toole. I should also cite Nadja by Breton, the letters of Jacques Vache. Anything Ubu by Jarry, Life: A User's Manual by Perec. The Castle and The Trial by Kafka. Aphorisms by Licthenberg. The Tractatus by Wittgenstein.The Invention of Morel by Bioy Casares. The Satyricon by Petronius. The History of Rome by Tito Livio.Pensees by Pascal."

Finally, a Canadian reference. In a discussion on his book Nazi Literature in the Americas, Bolano notes that, "There are several North American authors, I assure you....The trouble is that there aren't any Canadian authors. I had a Quebecker in mind but they were cut in the end for lack of merit."

A companion piece for Bolano fans.

Heda Margolius Kovaly (1919-2010): Innocence Or, Murder on Steep Street

This novel is seen as a companion to Kovaly's earlier memoir called Prague Farewell (published in the USA as Under a Cruel Star), the latter being a brilliant description of Kovaly's life as a young Jewish girl swept up by the Nazis, sent to the Lodz ghetto and then to Auschwitz; she survived and returned to Prague, married, and then lost her husband (a Deputy Minister in the government, also Jewish) in one of the show trials of the 1950s; thrown out of her apartment and persecuted for being unemployed and homeless, Kovaly eked out a living as a translator. Clive James has said of Prague Farewell (in his brilliant Cultural Amnesia): "Given thirty seconds to recommend a single book that might start a serious young student on the hard road to understanding the political tragedies of the twentieth century, I would chose this one. The life of Heda Margolius Kovaly is not be be envied. If we had to live a life like hers in order to come out of it with her spirit and dignity, we would be better off not living at all. But her life did have one feature that we can call a blessing. It dramatized, for our edification, the two great contending totalitarian forces, because they both chose her for a victim."

Innocence is not a strong novel; it is not in the same league as Prague Farewell for writing; but it does convey the brutal, survivalist psychology forced on people by the system where no one could be trusted, where lives were turned upside down and destroyed by Kafkaesque nightmares that offer no logic, no rationales, no conclusions. It was a life fully captured by a description from a character in Milan Kundera's, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, about life in a communist system as being, "on the surface, an intelligible lie, and underneath an unintelligible truth." 

Timur Vermes (1967-): Look Who's Back 

The time is the summer of 2011. The place is Berlin. And Adolf Hitler wakes up, alive and well in a vacant lot, in a Germany now full of immigrants and with a woman Chancellor. To every query, he says that he is, indeed, the Adolf Hitler. People assume  that he is a terrific method actor consumed with his role; he becomes a TV celebrity with his own talk-show. The book is written in the first-person; we are inside Hitler's mind; we see his reactions and what we might call the 'Hitler-logic' pertaining to groups, people, society; it is all quite logical in his perverted world view. And it does, at some points, provoke real laughter. 

The scarier part of the book, first published in 2012, i.e. well before the advent of Donald Trump as candidate for President of the United States, is the satirical prescience that Vermes offers in the parallels between a reinvigorated Hitler and the appeal of Donald Trump. Hitler is applauded for his "straight talking", and for being someone who is "prepared to dismantle the fossilized structures."  The media are castigated for tendentious and false reporting. The TV conglomerate is delighted with  its ratings and the flood of advertising money; it has no interest in killing its golden goose. Even Hitler appreciates that the conditions were "absolutely perfect" for his return, given that, "There was an army of unemployed people, millions strong, and a silent anger in the population, a dissatisfaction with the prevailing circumstances that reminded me of 1930..."

Eka Kurniawan (1975-): Beauty is a Wound

Kurniawan is a well-known, present-day Indonesian writer. This is his first novel translated into English. The stage is set in the very first sentence:  "One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years." What follows is a rolling, rocking, often violent tale that is fable, fantasy, and magical realism, framed in economic, social, political histories of Indonesia from colonial oppression, through Japanese occupation and the war of independence, to decades of more oppression under Suharto, all pivoting around the lives of Dewi Ayu and her four daughters and grandchildren, beset by a cross-generational curse. Great story-telling, fine writing, compelling characters. 

Nikos Kazantzkais (1883-1957): Zorba the Greek

An old classic I had never read. It is not only great fun but contemplative in the simple philosophies of life exemplified by the always exuberant and visceral Zorba about love and life and lust and commitment and honour and friendship and women, and what really matters in life not hedged-in by the trappings and trammels of society. A great read.

Graham Swift (1949-): Mothering Sunday

Short at 177 pages, smaller format, but a brilliant‎ cogitation that is poignant and insightful concerning life, fiction-truth, the power of words and writing. The protagonist, Jane, becomes a writer, "and because she was a writer, or because it was what had made her become a writer, be constantly beset by the inconstancy of words."  The last words capture Jane's philosophy of life and what Swift explores in this novel: "It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feel of being alive. It was about finding a language. And it was about being true to the fact, the one thing only only followed from the other, that many things in life--oh so many more than we think--can never be explained at all."

Geoff Dyer (1958-): White Sands, Experiences From the Outside World

A thoughtful pastiche of travel and sights and how one can frame perspectives to consider more deeply the meaning, or at least the impacts, of places, moments, actions, literature, and art. All addressing the question, why do we travel? In contemplating a painting called The Questioner of the Sphinx by Elihu Vedder (1863), Dyer says, "His painting seems emblematic of the experiences that crop up repeatedly in this book: of trying to work out what a certain place--a certain way of marking the landscape--means; what it's trying to tell us; what we go to it for."

Interesting observations appear throughout the book. At one point, Dyer traces the footsteps of Gauguin in Tahiti, but he realises that even as he is standing where Gauguin would have, and was seeing what Gauguin saw, he was not, "even coming close to seeing as he had seen."  This is crucial: the individuality of perception of any place or action of product and, for Dyer, the need to contemplate that, to think about the impacts and what they mean to you.

In contemplating the Watts Towers, built by one man over a period of about thirty years for his own pleasure, with no ulterior objective, Dyer muses that the Towers, "had become mythic, and it is the nature of the myth that it remains true to itself while subtly adapting to the spoken or unspoken needs of those to whom it appeals, whose hopes it embodies." In the 60s with efforts underway to preserve the Towers as part of the city's culptural heritage, debates broke out about over whose heritage they represented. But for Dyer, "The malleability of the towers is such that they can surmount this perceived schism; their strength allows them to hold competing claims together like rope in a tug-of-love."

I heard echoes of WG Sebald in the way Dyer uses art, photographs, descriptions, facts, histories, impressions to build a picture and to contemplate the meaning of not just events, but things. I head Jose Saramago (especially in his novel Baltasar and Blimunda) on the rapaciousness of the church in building monstrous monuments to itself on the backs of the impoverished. I heard Patrick Modiano in Dyer's sensitivity to buildings as more than just blocks of material, but things that play roles in histories large and small.

Dyer speculates that his "enormous capacity for disappointment" is, in fact, "an achievement, a victory", because "The devastating scale and frequency of my disappointment was proof of how much I still expected and wanted from the world, of what high hopes I still had of it. When I am no longer capable of disappointment the romance will be gone: I may was well be dead." This recalled a the same philosophy expanded by Pascal Mercier in Night Train to Lisbon, where his principal protagonist argues, "How, if not through disappointment, should we discover what we have expected and hoped for? And where, if not in this discovery, should self-knowledge lie? So, how could one gain clarity about oneself without disappointment? We shouldn't suffer disappointment sighing at something our lives would be better without. We should seek it, track it down, collect it."

Dyer is a great jazz fan, and in many ways this book is like riffs that seem like unconnected, random thoughts, but if you listen closely, a structure and perspective emerges without ever replacing or overwhelming the power of individual moments and colours.

John Glassco (1908-1981): Memoirs of Montparnasse

In 1927, Glassco quit university in Montreal to move to Paris to find himself, and life, and to become a writer. These memoirs, produced some years after the events provide brilliant cameos of ‎famous, and not so famous, and wanna-be famous writers and artists criss-crossing in the bohemian life-style of Paris in the 20s. It is replete with observations on art and life, hubris and solecism, and the mirrors of life that reflect the myriad personalities of every individual. The writing is wonderful. Glassco knew Morley Callaghan in Paris, but the latter never forgave Glassco's portrayal of him. A good companion piece is Morley Callaghan's That Summer in Paris. 

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894): Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes

Stevenson is best known for his famous novels such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; however, he was also a poet, an essayist and a travel writer. This small book, published in 1879, was one of Stevenson's first publications. It details a twelve-day walk that Stevenson took through the Cevennes, an area in south-central France, in October, a project that was "a thing unheard of in that district. I was looked upon with contempt, like a man who should project a journey to the moon, but yet with a respectful interest, like one setting forth for the inclement Pole." The first order of business was to purchase a donkey to carry the pack, provisions and tent for the trip. Stevenson was not an experienced hiker and knew nothing about packing for such an adventure, much less anything about the temperament and treatment of a donkey. Thus ensued a number of hilarious episodes of preparation with local people very free with advice for the stranger manifestly unprepared for the planned journey. 

Stevenson was not only an intrepid traveller, he was also an astute observer of societal beliefs and individual perceptions. The Cevennes was the site, 150 years earlier, of a revolt by Hugenots after years of persecution. The fighting lasted from 1702 to 1710 and finally, completely ended in 1715. There were atrocities on both sides. In Stevenson's day, Protestants and Catholics were no longer killing each other, and were living in "mutual toleration and mild amity of life" because, "...the race of man, like that indomitable nature whence it sprang, has medicating virtues of its own; the years and seasons bring various harvests; the sun returns after the rain; and mankind outlives secular animosities, as a single man awakens from the passions of a day. We judge our ancestors from a more divine position; and the dust being a little laid with several centuries, we can see both sides adorned with human virtues and fighting with a show of right." And yet, memories were long, heroes and myths abounded, and lines were still clearly drawn in society.  

An absorbing, entertaining read that highlights again how little human prejudices change over 300 years.

Tags: John Klassen