§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: November 2006

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Messiah of Stockholm by Cynthia Ozick

A short novel that’s billed sometimes as a “mystery”. That's a stretch, though there is a mystery of sorts and even a family of swindlers. It’s really a philosophical novel, with a generous dose of humor. Novels that honor ideas more than human interactions and situations are not my favorites—I’d rather read existentialist thinkers than the novels they write. That must be my peculiarity, though, since I find most people quite puzzled by my preferences.

The main character is Lars Andemening, a refuge child from Eastern Europe, raised by a Swedish foster family and now a minor literary figure—third in the line of book reviewers at what is not the top notch Stockholm rag. Like many children and probably all orphans, he imagines an ideal parentage—in this case a Polish Jewish writer (Bruno Schulz) who was martyred by the Nazis—and dedicates his life to the supposedly lost manuscript of that father’s novel, “The Messiah”. Lars shapes his life around Schulz and the lost novel, letting his actual life slide—two lost wives and a daughter, an environment that’s ever more minimal, a job where he doesn’t even have a cubical and only arrives after everyone else has left.

Lars’ fantasy life leads him to try to learn Polish (so he can read his father’s work) and to Heidi Eklund who runs a dusty bookshop with some specialty in Eastern Europe; she helps him search out bits of Bruno Schluz’s trivia—letters, biographicals bits, and references to the work. She knows of Lars' fantasy of finding “The Messiah” miraculously preserved from the effluvia of war. He’s clearly a top candidate for her manipulation and she finds a Schulz daughter to whom the lost manuscript has been entrusted. Problem is that Lars doesn’t react as she expected. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Suite Française by Irène Némirovski

I expected this book to be interesting from an historical point of view—I'm always interested in how people lived in WWII—but I wasn't expecting much from it as a novel, especially an unfinished one. I found it interesting from both points of view. The history is given in two appendices, one a series of notes and diary-like entries by the author on her plans for the book and the other, a series of letters and telegrams, initially between the author and her publisher and, after her disappearance, between her husband and anyone likely to be able to help find her.

The reader gradually gets the details of how she was apprehended as a stateless person with Jewish grandparents, sent to a French camp and immediately on to Auschwitz where she was gassed. The correspondence continues between people trying to help the children, even after the father is also taken and gassed in Auschwitz. This level of detail is illuminating because it allows the reader to eavesdrop on one of millions of tragedies as it played out in the absence of the information we have now about the Holocaust.

The novel itself also interested me more than I expected. I've always found it frustrating to read unfinished last works (i.e, The Last Tycoon or The Mystery of Edwin Drood). Sure, they show the genius of an artist at the height of his or her powers, but not only is the novel not finished, but the texture of the novel has not been combed through by the author to tighten up the structure or to edit what needs fixing. And there's a certain frustration in not seeing the final product.

Némirovski's epic—she called it that and "Suite Française" was her title—was to consist of 5 parts of approximately 200 pages each. What exists now are the first two of those parts,"Storm in June" which is about various citizens leaving Paris in a panic in the wake of the Nazi advance in the summer of 1940. The second part, "Dolce", is a picture of a small French village in the occupied zone during the time that German soldiers are billeted with them. Némirovski's characters are a wide variety of social types. All are confused and bewildered by a country they feel betrayed them and most are blatantly out for themselves. From a wealthy Russian Jewish banking family who had nevertheless lived lived most of her adult life in France, Némirovski understood the French characters, but she had a certain distance from them which you see especially in this section. It's as if she were dissecting layers of society to expose the venal and the selfish and the self-deluded. It's sad and comic and absurd. One set of refugees, though, the Michauds, are much more likable characters as is their son, seen recovering from a war wound in a farmhouse. It's clear they'll play a larger part in the overall plot.

In "Dolce", Némirovski exquisitely categorizes the social strata of what would seem too small a village to have them, finding, not surprisingly, that those with more are the least willing to share and the most hypocritical about it. Reactions to the occupation—and to the young German soldiers in their midst—differ widely and Némirovski examines several characters and many aspects of village life in detail. At the end, I was just plain sad that the novel would never be finished and grateful for every tidbit of knowledge of the characters that the author's notes provided. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

This is a coming of age story, probably autobiographical, about a sensitive 13-year-old boy in the Worcestershire village of Black Swan Green (where everyone says there aren’t any swans, black or otherwise). It’s a more straightforward narrative than Cloud Atlas, Mitchell’s previous novel, though it skips from time to time and topic to topic, often without transition, and the language is chock full of the slang and abbreviation characteristic of kids. There’s even one "bleed" of content from Cloud Atlas, when our hero meets an extravagant woman named Crommelynke, obviously related to the Belgian family on the estate where the mythical English compose, Frobischer, takes refuge.

Jason Taylor lives with his middle class family (father, a grocery executive, mother, a house wife, and an older sister who’s far more self assured than he is) in a suburban house and goes to a comprehensive school. The bane of his life is a tendency to stammer (“The Hangman”), which he’s working on with a speech therapist, but which he suspects (rightly as it turns out) will make him the butt of jokes if his classmates find out.

The story takes place during the calendar year of 1982. January starts out with British Bulldogs on the ice where Jason breaks his grandfather’s watch and is too afraid to tell his parents. He eavesdrops on young lovers in the woods and then mourns with the village when the boy is killed a few months later in the Falklands War. He spends a few Saturday afternoons with the exotic Madame Crommelynke who gives him hints of a broader context of life and art than the village offers as she encourages him in his writing of poetry, and discourages his hiding behind the childish pseudonym of Eliot Bolivar. (Jason doesn’t admit to writing poetry because his environment tells him that “Writing poetry is….what creeps and poofters do”.) He gradually learn how to deal with the bullies; when his worst enemy is maimed in an accident in the midst of an attempt to terrorize Jason, he feels vaguely responsible, though the reader sees that Ross Wilcox’s accident was caused by his own inability to control his anger while Jason escaped persecution largely because he did control his emotions. Jason experiences his first kiss and at Christmas learns that his parents are separating and his world will change dramatically.

One reviewer called Jason’s voice “achingly true to life” and I’d have to agree. Another reviewer compared Jason’s adventures to those of Huck and Tom and that’s certainly appropriate, especially when Jason and his mates attempt to find the ancient Roman tunnel through the Malvern hills or when Jason happens into a gypsy camp to discover that this minority is quite as suspicious of the middle class who want them out of Black Swan Green as the villagers are of them. Disarming as Huck Finn, Jason usually assumes that the grownups are right and he’s wrong when in fact his moral compass is excellent. He’s rewarded for his acceptance of the gypsies when they take him to see the dramatic landing of…a swan.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Night Inspector by Frecerick Busch

It's a coincidence that the next book I read after the Civil War history was about a man who was a sharpshooter in the Civil War whose successful career ended when an enemy bullet hit his rifle, causing it to explode in his face. Billy Bartholomew wants to die, is nursed back to health, and decides the best way to deal with his awful disfigurement is to have the maker of prosthetic limbs make him a mask to cover his face. That sets the scene for this dark and twisted novel of post-Civil War New York.

It’s a novel that juggles lots of idea that fascinate most of us: the mask immediately suggests the duality of reality and illusion as war asks us always to consider whether killing is always murder or not. Interestingly, Billy Bartholomew, the main character and narrator of this novel, says he posed for Winslow Homer’s famous painting, "The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty". Of interest too is that fact that Homer had this to say about his painting (which Billy does not report): "The impression struck me as being as near murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service."

When considering the morality of killing in war, Busch removes the “good of the cause” from consideration because Billy says that Abe Lincoln, preserving the union and freeing the slaves are a blind and that the war was really about the need of Northern industrialists for blacks to be low-paid workers in their factoriesa—“totally hindsight view” one can’t help but wonder? In other words it’s all economic. But then it’s not as if Billy holds himself aloof from the profit motive, becoming a successful (and ruthless) commodities trader in New York after the war. So the ideas all revolve around moral ambiguities as I see it.

Moral ambiguities suggests the inclusion of another character in the novel: M is clearly Herman Melville, living—barely supporting his family as a night inspector for the US Customs Service—on East 26th Street. Bartholomew knows of and admires Moby Dick, but is not aware of other novels like Pierre or The Ambiguities and The Confidence Man. Melville’s literary success is years behind him and he’s aware that most admirers assume that he is dead.

Billy lives in the Five Points area of New York, a notorious slum of the time that provided life and sustenance for Irish, German and other immigrants. There was a major archeological investigation at the site of a US courthouse bginning in 1991. Archeologists were able to reconstruct much about the life of the people who had inhabited the Five Points area, both in Bartholomew’s time and before. One can’t help but wonder if that might have stirred up Busch’s imagination, to say nothing of his interest in the time and the place. In any case, one of the compelling aspects of the book is the recreation of life on the NY streets—especially at night when one might even by threatened by a wild boar—in the post-Civil War period.

The novel’s plot involves Billy’s attempt to help his lover, a beautiful Creole prostitute named Jessie, free some black children who are being shipped to New York in barrels to be sold under cover as slaves. Naturally he needs the help of his friend the night inspector (Melville). As the novel draws to a close, this violent plot takes over and the novel comes to a crushing conclusion which leaves the whole moral ambiguity question even murkier. There are still two chapters to go, though, when the slaves-in-a-barrel plot is concluded. In one, Billy sees not only M but Mark Twain in the audience for one of Dickens’ readings and identifies Twain by the name he gave to the age that’s just beginning, “The Gilded Age”. In the other, Billy is seen as a couple with the Chinese laundress who is the only other person besides Jessie who ever saw him without his mask, presumably suggesting a return to the human fold for this violent and disturbing man.

Like most novels of ideas, this one is overbalanced by the ideas, but it does some things very well: it explores the violence that humans do to each other in a context that reserves judgment on right and wrong and instead considers human and inhuman values and reactions, and it explores 19th New York—the urban model of life which was the “winner” in the Civil War—with all of its contradictions and ambiguities, giving readers a sense of the range of people who lived there, what they did and how they lived. Posted by Picasa