I am back from Lisbon! The half-marathon was good–it was hot and I am slow, but most importantly I had lots of fun and there was even ice cream at the end (as an extra bonus it was lemon flavor, my fave). Overall I got in touch with my Portuguese ancestry, ate lots of fish, had a dessert at almost every meal, went hiking at the westernmost point of Europe and visited an abandoned 16th-century monastery. Maybe I will upload photos later if I can figure out how to connect my iphone to the computer… but don’t count on it. Anyway, so that’s where I’ve been physically; in terms of reading I’ve visited Germany, a nameless Kafka-esque country, an island off the coast of Equatorial Guinea and rural Sweden. WOOHOO.
F (Daniel Kehlmann)
No wonder there is a blurb by Ian McEwan on the front cover; this is certainly a dark and odd little book (dare I even say… vaguely reminiscent of McEwan’s early work?). It is hard for me to figure out how to talk about this novel–I guess I’ll start by saying that I enjoyed it and think it is an impressive achievement. In terms of a naked, bare-bones summary, this is a story about three brothers: Martin and the twins Ivan and Eric. The novel begins with an event that becomes key for each brother’s future, with an opening sentence highly reminiscent of One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Years later, long since fully grown and each of them enmeshed in his own particular form of unhappiness, none of Arthur Friedland’s sons could recall whose idea it had actually been to go to the hypnotist that afternoon.” I won’t spoil what happens with the hypnotist, but after this opening sequence we then get a chapter narrated from the first-person perspective of each brother. Martin is a priest who doesn’t believe in God and is far more interested in his Rubik’s cube and food addiction (the scene where he’s eating chocolate in the confessional box is particularly amusing). Ivan is an art dealer who secretly forges paintings (i.e. by painting them himself) of a famous artist who is also his lover/boyfriend. Eric works in high-finance and reminded me of what Gary’s chapter in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections would sound like if Gary were severely mentally ill, bordering on schizophrenic. We also get a short story written by their father Arthur about their family history (one of the novel’s most memorable moments), and we close with a chapter that is primarily narrated from the third-person perspective of Eric’s daughter Maria.
So… that’s the bare bones summary. Now on to the more important question: why do I find this book so mysterious? Why does it ultimately feel sort of murky to me? Not that it’s a problem, but ultimately I don’t really understand what this book is about, what it’s trying to say–is it about family? Fate? God? Belief? This last theme feels particularly important to me, considering all three characters have “shadow selves” that they project to the world: the priest who is really a non-believer, the financier whose investments are all Ponzi schemes, the art dealer who is secretly an forger. Similarly to Christian Bale’s riff in the American Hustle trailer, Ivan has a similar moment of reflection about “real” art vs. forgeries:
“When I was young, vain and lacking all experience, I thought the art world was corrupt. Today I know that’s not true… It is art itself as a sacred principle that unfortunately doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist any more than God does, or the End of Days, or eternity, or the Heavenly Host. All that exists are works, different in style, in form and in essence, and the whispered hurricane of opinions about them.” (188)
Just like Christian Bale, Ivan reflects that if the forger can recreate the master’s techniques so perfectly that they are indistinguishable, then what makes the paintings by the so-called master superior? (I guess it could maybe be what Walter Benjamin would call its “aura,” but who knows.) At what point does semblance replace reality? Does it matter if something is real or do we just need to think that something is real? Is it important to know who your “real” self is or is the projection you give to society all that counts?
This is all reminding me of this class discussion I once witnessed at the summer school that I work at, about Inception and whether you would want to live in a dream world without knowing it was a dream. Would a life in an Inception-style dream world still be “real” or would it be fake, even though you died without knowing it? OMG Heavy Duty Stuff. Here’s what another priest tells Martin:
“And what does ‘believe’ mean anyway? The concept is logically hazy, Martin. When you’re sure of a proposition, then you know it. When you think that something might be so, then you call that belief. It’s a speculation about probability. Belief means assuming that something is probable, although it might be otherwise. Lack of belief means assuming that something probably isn’t so, even when it absolutely could be so. Is the difference really that big? It’s all a matter of nuance.” (90)
This is all making the book sound quite heavy-handed and philosophical, but really it’s not–it’s easy to read and flows well. But damn, I’ve only just realized how neatly this theme of belief ties in with the hypnotist, someone whose job is all about suggestion and persuasion… I’m starting to feel that there is a lot in this book to unpack if I were to give it more time and thought, which is a very clear sign that a book is working on a higher level for me.
In terms of constructive critcisim, there were parts in this book where the satire felt a little too heavy-handed (particularly in Eric’s chapter) but it was never bad enough to irritate me or make me want to stop reading. There’s also another central event that ties the brothers’ three stories together, one that I ultimately found unconvincing, too much off a tidy coincidence. Still, I understand why it needs to exist because a) otherwise the brothers’ stories may have felt too unconnected and b) it provides a resolution to at least two of the brothers’ ultimate fates.
Along with Erpenbeck’s The End of Days this is the second German novel on the IFFP list that I’ve been impressed with. I am definitely interested in reading more of Daniel Kehlmann’s work, for sure. This is writing that is very resistant to convention and commercialization–it doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out or lay all the cards out on the table, and it tries to grapple with Big Themes in fairly subtle ways. And ambition and subtlety are two tendencies in good writing that I will always respect. With that, let’s end with another thought from Ivan the artist:
I often think about the artists of the Middle Ages. They didn’t sign things, they were craftsmen who belonged to guilds, they were spared the disease that we call ambition. Can it still be done that way, can you still do the work without taking yourself seriously–can you still paint without being ‘a painter’? Anonymity is no help, it’s merely a clever hiding place, another form of vanity. But painting in the name of someone else is a possibility; it works. And what amazes me all over again every day is: it makes me happy. (190)
The Last Lover (Can Xue)
Okay. So this is seriously without exaggeration one of the weirdest books I have ever read in my life. Only the avant-garde poetry that I read in my (appropriately titled) Avant-Garden Fiction class back in college can maybe compare. I did not like this book and I cannot recommend it, but at the same time I have to acknowledge that what it is doing is Damn Different and this deserves respect. If it were truly a terrible book, then I wouldn’t have finished it, but I was able to read it until the very end–that has to count for something, right?
More than anything else, this book made me think about how novels have to “teach” us how to read them, in the sense that a novel has to create its own expectations for how it should be judged/assessed. I can’t criticize this book for having no plot and no interesting characters, because it is a book that is blatantly uncommitted to achieving either of those things. I’ve read some of Can Xue’s short stories before and “enjoyed” them (i.e. thought they were totally mental), but none of them really prepared me for this–I guess the length of a novel vs. that of a short story might have a lot to do with it.
The main reason this book is weird is because basically ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN AT ANY POINT. Dreams are a big theme–it is basically impossible to tell when a character is dreaming or when it is “real life” (not that it matters). It reminded me a lot of the Circe chapter in Ulysses–in that chapter, though, the surreal things that happened still made sense because they were ultimately tied to the psychology of characters that we’d come to care very deeply about. In The Last Lover, though, everything feels random–maybe there is deep intentionality behind each event, but I am not smart enough to figure out what it is. Even in David Lynch movies things at least FEEL vaguely connected, like you want to try to figure them out, but this book is just like… whatever. Ultimately it feels like a bad acid trip, a series of randomly typed visions. I would read five pages and then realize that I had literally NO idea what was happening. But then I’d realize I wasn’t supposed to, so I would just plod dutifully on.
Ugh do I even want to bother summarizing this. Okay so you have a bunch of couples: Joe and Maria, Reagan and Ida, Vincent and Lisa (I am copying this from the book jacket because even though I finished this two days ago I’ve already forgotten their names). They live in a nameless Kafka-esque nation where Joe and Reagan have two highly symbolic jobs, as the sales manager of a clothing company and rubber plantation owner respectively. Maria weaves tapestries, her son Daniel is dating this Vietnamese girl, the other characters I don’t even remember, omg none of this really matters because all of a sudden someone is riding a snow leopard across a field, there’s an earthquake, there’s a landslide, Ida’s living in a bar, Lisa is dead but maybe not, who knows, who cares. There are tons of animals in this book: wild cats, turtles without shells, mice, wasps, snakes, crows, insects. That’s probably important. People visit places like “the East” or “the gambling city” and there’s references to workers drowning due to Joe’s ill-made clothes. That’s probably important too. I think this book is maybe, like, commenting on exile? Or maybe, like, the dissolving boundaries of the nation state? And the evils of capitalism? And like modernity in general? IDK, man. I don’t care.
This is a novel that is maybe more akin to modern dance or performance art. Neither of those two things are my cup of tea. Neither is this book. But c’est la vie.
By Night the Mountain Burns (Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel)
This is a book I ended up enjoying a lot despite having no expectations. The publisher has also produced Down the Rabbit Hole and All Dogs Are Blue, two novels I really enjoyed, so I’ll have to be sure to seek out more of their books in the future.
My favorite things about this book were the sense of humor and the utter lack of self-pity. “If this story becomes known,” the narrator declares matter-of-factly near the end, “it will be because of some white people.” This kind of down-to-earth, upfront attitude is something I really enjoyed about the narrator’s voice. This book “shows” us the characters’ poverty rather than “telling” us–it isn’t demanding or showy or trying to draw a lot of attention to it, shouting at the top of its lungs LOOK AT HOW POOR WE ARE, PLEASE FEEL SORRY FOR US. Instead it is very natural and matter-of-fact, like when the narrator discusses the mattress that is rotting due to the ferocity of his older brothers’ bed-wetting habit, or the grandmother’s skill at keeping the oil lamp on all night since there are no matches in the house.
I also liked the way I was slowly but surely immersed in this unfamiliar universe, that of an unnamed island off the coast of Equatorial Guinea. Rather than a straightforward plot, the narrator instead takes us through a series of anecdotes that often repeat or build upon each other, similar to the way someone telling a story orally will backtrack and add extra details. I liked the way the narrator kept us intrigued by dropping hints about the grandfather, for example (I’m surprised he just kind of disappeared from the story though). This is a book with no plot that is still extremely satisfying, and thus deserves praise for its effective unconventionality.
The other thing worth commenting on is that even though the novel is narrated in first person singular, it easily feels like it could be in third person plural. I found the parts talking about the community’s collective responsibility in face of a horrifically violent event against an individual some of the most interesting in the book.
In the end, this novel didn’t rock my world or revolutionise my life but the depiction of the small island community is quite an achievement. Like The Dead Lake, this book does an excellent job of depicting a way of life that is often ignored in mainstream literature. I would recommend this book to people and if it ends up on the top-six shortlist for the IFFP I definitely wouldn’t complain (though I still have quite a few books left to read…!).
The Ravens (Tomas Bannerhed)
I liked this book but didn’t love it. Set in rural Sweden in the 1970’s, it is a coming-of-age story about Klas, a bed-wetting teen with a suicidal father who expects him to eventually take over the family farm. Klas is obsessed with bird-watching, sending letters to the local newspaper, a hole on the ceiling above his bed that he thinks is watching him, and solving prodigy-level math problems in his head. Like The Dead Lake and By Night the Mountain Burns, it is depiction of a specific world and lifestyle I know very little about, and it definitely made me want to read more Scandinavian literature in the future (AAAH, so many books!! How will we ever get to them all?).
Ultimately, the main reason I didn’t love this book is because I wasn’t that invested in the father as a character, and given that the majority of the book asks you to be wrenchingly concerned about his fate, this became sort of an issue. Why didn’t I care about him as a character? Who knows–why do we care about the characters that we do? Maybe if I’d seen more of him in the beginning as a not-insane man, it would have helped. Instead, the book immediately demanded from the very beginning that I be invested in him and the question of his insanity, and that was not an investment I was willing to make right away, especially not with the book’s melodramatic language which I initially found alienating and off-putting. I will be very upfront in expressing my own personal biases, in the sense that I tend to not be super into very lyrically-written books. Here’s the opening passage so that you can decide for yourself:
There’s Father, I thought. In his eternal cloud.
Bouncing along in Grandfather’s old Ferguson with his body belt drawn tight and his hair growing greyer, and later he’ll come home smelling of earth–because he has no choice. Because this spot is ours, this plot of soil, these acres of farmland. The lake, drained and turned into fields and banks. The marsh, Raven Fen, smoking like ashes and tinder as soon as the dry season sets in, the peat bog that can suddenly catch fire, smouldering and gasping in its depths, burning without a flame, glowing unseen, consuming everything from below until you dig trenches to cut it off.
This is our patch. We have no other.
This soil, observed by the sun and the ravens.
This plot beneath a sky criss-crossed by jet planes.
IDK–right off the bat this does not sound like the consciousness of a teenage boy to me, even a painfully precocious one. The prose is very nice and poetic and beautiful, but in the end it had a distancing effect on me. While reading this book I was always aware that I was reading a “lyrical” novel about growing up–I never felt like I was “seeing” the world through the lens of Klas; I was seeing the world through the lens of a poetic novel (Maureen Duffy’s Love Child is an example of another book that had a similar effect on me). On the level of lyrical language and precise description the book is excellent. In the end though, I guess I personally prefer books that “get” to me in a deeply personal way, and the way that happens for me is when I personally connect with an individual character’s consciousness, and not on the level of beautiful-sounding language.
It sounds like I am complaining a lot, but this is a good book! There are lots of good scenes–I liked all the moments with Klas’ friends (especially the scene with the cow; oh man!). The scene where Klas and his little manic pixie dream girl crush encounter a rare bird in the lake is one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read and easily the pinnacle of the book. There are also really lovely subtle details, like the moment when Klas realizes that his mother has packed the same lunch for both him and his father (what a way to “show” Klas growing up rather than tell us!). I’m glad I read this book and I would recommend it to people who are interested in being introduced to Scandinavian literature, but it is a book that I read somewhat dispassionately and dutifully, rather than feeling absorbed and obsessed.
So that’s eight books down on the IFFP list… seven to go! Ohooo man… good thing it’s still Easter break for me :D