§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: July 2009

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fateless (or Fatelessness) by Imre Kertész

Title is sort of hard to figure out, in either translation. This is a holocaust story narrated by a young boy who's taken from Budapest . He's a non-practicing Jew with no knowledge of Yiddish and few connections to Jewish traditions. He's an acute observer and attempts to make readers understand what life in the camps was like. without bothering about issues of politics or religion. He knew some German from school and learned more but could not communicate with many of his fellows who spoke Czech, Slovak, Polish, a gypsy dialect, etc. His tone is detached and reportorial. He concentrates on what happens to him and how he feels. He seems isolated with the crowds of prisoners who, in additional to the language barrier, were often in competition with each other and who disappeared frequently. His goal is to adjust and survive. He accepts his isolation even when he goes home, where neither those who ignore him nor those who are horrified at what happened to him and want to publicize his story are able to understand his experience.

I rated it 8/10. The beginning particularly is riveting. Near the end the boy's ambivalence about what happens to him and maybe the translation (the version I read is supposed to be a poor translation) result in a less than clear message, though maybe that's the point. I liked this book particularly because it doesn't rave and rant about politics or religion or atrocities, but instead seeks to recreate an experience.

The Mulberry Empire by Philip Hensher

This is an historical novel about Afghanistan (though not a traditional historical novel since, among other departures from tradition, what seems like a romantic thread comes to a climax, produces an illegal child, but doesn't end happily or even decisively). Another departure is that the writer is British but his title character is not Alexander Burnes, the Englishman, but Dost Mohammed Khan, the Afghan.
Most of the characters are real, including both Burnes and Dost Mohammed, and there's a list of books he consulted in writing it, including Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game, one of my favorite nonfiction reads of the last 10 years.

The sympathy is not with the British in the First Afghan War--where the British were soundly defeated and mostly all killed--but with the Afghans who were extraordinarily violent. It's a very 21st century view of a 19th century war, though at the time there were participants who recognized British treachery in driving out Dost Mohammed Khan in favor of a decadent ex-emperor whom the Indian Governor thought might protect Britain from a Russian invasion of India. In the beginning of the novel, we see Alexander Burnes as the toast of London for having been the first Englishman received in Kabul, but the social events at which he's feted read very much like social events in later Dickens novels--the focus is on the hollowness of both the characters involved and the events and the social amenities they practice. Amazing that's done without detracting from the complexity and humanity of the main characters who attend the events.

While the novel is more or less chronological, it doesn't feel like it while reading since Hensher jumps from one character and locale to another and seems to focus on parochial and local events rather than on a step in the historical timeline. You may not even recognize at first that the novel is historical, especially if you do not know about the first Afghan war. On the other hand, you'll not miss Hensher's reimagining of the British Empire. An author who can both make local characters and events real AND convey an overarching evaluation--and criticism--of a past era is an author to take seriously.

This is a serious novelist, imitating familiar novelistic techniques in a new context, engaging ideas both historical and artistic. He warns us in the Afterward not to expect historical exactness, that even the characters of some historical figures are changed. I found it impressive as a novel and thought provoking as a view of history.

I should say that I found this novel in AS Byatt's answer to an interviewer's question about who she reading among younger writers. And there's a sentence in the "Errors and Obligations" section at the end acknowledging her advice. The book also has a glossary, though most of the terms used are clear in the context or actually defined in the text--and a cast of characters. One imagines an editor suggesting the latter for a book which involves so very many characters, but this cast is at the end--where you may not see it until you're nearly finished. And the characters are only named, not described or put in any context.

Death of Venice by Thomas Mann

This was a reread, partly for the Venetian setting and partly because it’s one of those stories that is referred to all the time and I’d forgotten the details. I liked it a lot, though in the beginning I found a lot of infelicitous English translations. (Translator was Helen Tracey Lowe-Porter--don't know if there's a newer one.) Once I got into the story though, I didn’t notice them.

Seems like I’ve experienced several works these days about older men who’ve eschewed human contact more and more as they’ve aged but who go through some experience which opens them up to human contact and to love. The last one, before this, was Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries where an elderly man takes his daughter-in-law with him as he drives to Lund where he’s to be given an honorary degree. He stops near the home in the country where his large family used to spend summers and the combination of summer with its wild strawberries and the location causes him to “dream” of the past and as a result to soften his approach to his son and daughter-in-law as well as some traveling students they gave a ride to on the way.
That’s not exactly like Death in Venice—and has a much happier ending—but in the way that the doctor’s dreams of love in his youth softens and awakens his human sensibilities so does Aschenbach’s intense experience with the Polish boy awaken a part of himself that's long been buried. Aschenbach sees young Tadzio on the beach and is struck by his beauty—he’s sort of pre-teen I’m assuming, no hair in his armpits but clearly an awakening sexuality as evidenced by the other children who flock to him and in his own growing awareness of Aschenbach’s attention. Aschenbach, the intellectual, though processing his experience through the frame of Socrates’ dialogue with Phaedrus. The resurrection that occurs for the doctor in Bergman’s film, though, is not the result for Aschenbach who ignores warnings of plague in Venice and ultimately succumbs on the beach, dying of the renewal of his feelings of love.

1968: The Year that Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky

It was purely by accident that I chose to read this one just after the two Byatt novels that deal with the 60ies, especially A Whistling Woman, which deal with student unrest. Obviously student unrest played a big part in this one, in the US, France, Spain, Brazil and other places, though unrest at art schools in Britain was mentioned. The TET offensive, the My Lai massacre, assassination of ML King and Robert Kennedy, And Civil Rights and Democratic Convention violence. It's curious to read a retrospective on a period you lived through. Already married with a child, I was hardly a hippie in 1968, but I was teaching at a junior college in Delaware that was a "flunk out" school for expensive Eastern schools and the students were politically aware. Many on the faculty were, like me, recent grads and grad students and many were themselves active student protesters so that section of the book played best for me. I didn't watch TV much in those days so I don't remember the war on TV all that graphically, but I did watch the violence at the Democratic Convention and I kept up with the Civil Rights movements. An interesting book, but of necessity, painted with a broad brush.

Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914 by David Fromkin

(He's the one who wrote The Peace to End all Peace about the Middle East, the end of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the Middle East as we know it.)
He says the best way to understand this question--and Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August didn't have enough data to do so--is to realize there were two wars. Austria/Hungry wanted to get rid of Serbia who was a threat and so blamed the death of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand on Serbia (the assassination occurred in Sarajevo) and declared war. That was one war. Germany wanted to go to war to establish its position as a major European power and especially von Moltke, the head of the army, had determined that sooner was better before Russia, France and England became too strong. So Germany encouraged its ally Austria in its war. Austria's war with Serbia met with defeat but soon von Moltke manoevered (because Kaiser Wilhelm was actually against war) Germany into war with Russia and its ally France. Britain joined when the Germans attacked Belgium but also because it was concerned the Germany would overpower its ally France. The second war, started by Germany, overwhelmed the first one. (If my explanation seems confusing, read the book. It's very complex and I'm not sure I have it straight, but the answer is that Germany started WWI.

A Whistling Woman by A. S. Byatt

The fourth in the Quartet. Byatt continues her trend of including texts within texts. There's a partial text of Babbletower in the previous volume and in this one there's a partial text of the story that Agatha was reading to Saskia (her daughter) and Leo (Frederica's son). It's a fantasy story and Agatha's story is sort of like JK Rowling's--a single woman with a child reaches fame and fortune telling children's tales. Since Possession was also based on texts which Byatt invented and wrote herself and since the main character in The Children's Book is a woman who writes stories for each of her children, one of which is included in large chunks in the book, I have to see this text within text technique as important to Byatt (and if I were writing a dissertation on Byatt I'd start investigating that as a topic, if it's not already been done). A Whistling Woman also includes student rebellion of the 60ies in art schools and at the University of North Yorkshire (which I think Byatt made up--that's the one that the estate where the play about Elizabeth in The Virgin in the Garden took place, before it was deeded to the new university.). There's also a commune which attracts some of the intellectuals in the book as well as some of the more emotional religious types.

Babel Tower by A. S. Byatt

This one is the third of Byatt's Quartet. Frederica leaves her husband after he goes after her with an axe (which the divorce court doesn't believe because he's rich and charming and has good lawyers while she's that unnatural thing, a mother who wants to work, to learn , to live in a working class neighborhood, to send her son to a public--in the American sense--school and whose friends are all men). She reviews books for a publisher and in that capacity comes across an anti-utopian novel, Babbletower about a society that attempts absolute freedom--especially sexual freedom--and ends up ugly and violent--a short of Lord of the Flies for grownups, by a smell and unkempt man in a blue velvet coat. She recommends its publication. The author and publisher are sued for obscenity and that trial and Frederica's divorce "trial" allow Byatt lots of opportunity to characterize the "establishment" that even serious scholars, writers and artists who were not even remotely hippies were contending with. In that sense it's a great picture of the 60ies as experienced by an academically inclined woman. Frederica becomes a TV interviewer which allows Byatt to explore the new media and it's effect on public opinion as well as on art and scholarship. The characters from the first two novels continue: Daniel left his children with their grandparents because he couldn't function in his grief over Stephanie; he works in an old church as someone who answers a help line for emotionally distressed people, including Jude who wrote Babbletower. Bill (Frederica's father) has mellowed after his elder daughter's death, and becomes a model father for the children. Several of Frederica's friends from Cambridge make their way in London at the same time.

I liked this one but maybe not as much as the others in the Quarter.