Book Review: Hard Times, by Vasily Sleptsov

The novel is set in the aftermath of serf emancipation in Russia, which, apparently, merely transformed the serfs into peons, because they had to pay onerous redemption levies and received very little of the best land to which they had once belonged. Worse, paternalism remained alive and well, as many of the newly emancipated peasants languished in some kind of dependent relationship with their erstwhile masters. Early in the book (pp. 36-39), when the ex-serfs of the “liberal” Shchetinin perform shoddy construction work for him, he thinks only of “punishing” rather than firing them. When a peasant woman complains of being beaten by her husband, Shchetinin can only recommend “take her away from him.” (p. 47) Peasants must doff their caps whenever their betters pass by; if they fail to do so, they are locked up in the barn to be taught a lesson. (pp. 117, 128-129)

The radical in the story, Riazanov, somewhat understandably, sees through the façade of paternalism to a society in constant conflict. He considers it “war” when peasants steel wood or even if they indulge in drink. (pp. 104-105) When a “mediator” of gentry-peasant relations criticizes the landlords, Riazanov, to prove his unsentimental point, applies the criticism to the peasants, too:

“What haven’t they done to those unfortunate peasants? You can’t imagine what sort of people they are. Where they can possibly squeeze the peasants, they do so, never missing a chance.”

“Well, and do the peasants miss any chances?”

“Of course, to tell the truth, the peasants stand up for themselves: one way or another, they wear down the landowner.”

“In other words, it’s mutual exhaustion.” (p. 131)

Riazanov is really echoing the zero-sum economics of Marxism, upon which he expands in due time:

“If only one portion of bread is issued to two people, and of these two, one is stronger than the other, then from the point of view of the stronger, the most natural outcome would be to take the bread away from the weaker person….

“I see a diligent peasant; I see that he digs the earth and earns his bread by the sweat of his brow; then I observe that at a certain distance from him stand some people I’ve recently met and they’re patiently waiting while the diligent landowner enjoys the work and produces a yield; then they’ll approach this peasant and, in the most polite manner, take from him all that they can according to the rules for the good of enlightenment, and they’ll leave him with only as much as he needs for his own use to maintain ‘the form of a slave’ and not perish from starvation.” (pp. 173-174)

By the end of the novel, Riazanov is motivated to shed his nihilism and apply himself to the task of “organizing the artels,” referring to peasant and worker cooperatives (p. 178), thus coming full circle to embrace a new, revolutionary form of paternalism: Since the days of lord and serf are ended, he will become cadre to the proletariat.

A note about the style: Much of the novel consists of dialogue, and almost all of the dialogue is choppy and excruciating to read. This defect may be the fault of the translator, the writer, the language, or the alcohol consumed by the characters.

My Dream of Hell (or at least Purgatory)

I’m in a state of the art movie theater. The screen is three stories high. The patrons sit in swivel chairs, like Captain Kirk’s, on several broad tiers, each rising above the one in front. Confusingly for me, every chair has a little screen mounted on its right arm, for watching the movie or (presumably) something else.

Also, why should it be a swivel chair? Does it mean that I’m supposed to face a different direction?

I pivot about 120⁰ to the left, away from the big screen, until I am facing the aisle and the door in the left rear corner. Now I can see if my friends are coming. While I wait for them, I can also watch the movie on the little arm-mounted screen.

Book Review: Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami

I’ve theorized that Japanese literature seems to be the best adjusted to modern life. A singular lack of angst distinguishes novels such as Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, in which I take vicarious delight as its protagonists go about their lives at such places as diners, noodle shops, convenience stores, bus stations, bookstores, museums, and other mundane oases. Of course, Murakami’s characters aren’t simply going about their lives but are engaged in quests that are of great consequence to themselves if not to the universe as a whole. Isn’t that what we’re all doing: adventuring through the turnpike rest areas and shopping malls, like Don Quixote without the satire, discovering meaning wherever it is to be found?

Japanese fiction doesn’t abstract itself from the humdrum environment that produces it. Rather than to imagine more exciting times and places via historical fiction, say, Japanese writers make do with where and when they are. Or as Mr. Hoshino says in this book:

“We’re all pretty much empty, don’t you think? You eat, take a dump, do your crummy job for your lousy pay, and get laid occasionally, if you’re lucky. What else is there? Still, you know, interesting things do happen in life – like with us now.” (p. 306)

As a matter of fact, Mr. Hoshino is addressing his remarks to a man with the ability to talk to cats and to make it rain leeches.

But this book, like all of Murakami’s books, isn’t really about the paranormal. It’s about those not supernatural but nonetheless magical things that give our modern lives meaning: music and books and libraries.

A deserted library in the morning – there’s something about it that really gets to me. All possible worlds and ideas are there, resting quietly. (p. 313)

A library, even in the middle of a boring place like Takamatsu or Tacoma (or Taipei, as in the photograph), gives us all the magic we need. The same could be said of this dream of a book.

 

Book Review: Companion in Exile, by Ferenc Molnar

This book is a tribute to the author’s secretary, Wanda Bartha, who died (according to the Internet, by suicide) on August 27 or 28, 1947. At times, it resembles a séance for her.

Many passages highlight Ms. Bartha’s angelic qualities, of which the following stands out:

She would not intervene in arguments about subjects on which she was well-informed even when half-educated windbags were completely distorting simple facts. She could have straightened it out with a word. But what she had was far from the thing cocktail-party psychoanalysts call an inferiority complex. It was more a proud and defiant realization of the hopeless futility of trying to make good in a few minutes’ idle conversation what universities had failed to do in years. This is something I had never before observed before except in tired old men.

‘Why didn’t you say something,’ I asked her once, ‘when those ladies rattled off one idiocy after another about Valasquez and Goya? You know the paintings in the Prado better than those bridge-playing dames know the insides of their own handbags.’

She answered me, wide-eyed with wonder, ‘What for?’ (p. 35)

Molnar frequently cites Ms. Bartha’s notebook as a way to refocus attention upon himself or perhaps upon the time they spent together. Here is a charming example of the kind of vignette contained therein, describing how Molnar received the French Legion of Honor:

[Manager Firmin] Gémier’s secretary asked [Molnar] to come over to the Odéon Theater because a ‘present’ for him had come from the French Foreign Office, and Gémier wanted to present it solemnly in person. M[onsieur, i.e. Molnar] went over, but just outside the stage door he discovered he had not shaved. He knew the French custom required any presentation of the Legion of Honor to be accompanied with the so-called accolade, which consists in the kissing of the recipient on both cheeks by the man who is making the presentation. So M. hurried into the barbershop under the arcade of the ancient theater, to get a shave and thus to present a smooth face to the official kiss of the French Republic through the lips of M. Gémier. The barber sat him down in front of a mirror and soaped his face. Then M. saw in the mirror that M. Gémier was sitting in another chair with his back to him, with his face soaped, being hastily shaved by another barber. Gémier too wanted a smooth face when he delivered the two official kisses of the republic. Each pretended not to see the other. The only met upstairs on the stage where the solemn ceremony took place. Neither of them ever said a word about the barbershop. (p. 129)

Sometimes too Molnar pronounces poignantly on human nature, without apparent reference to Ms. Bartha, as in this defense of the supposed vice of self-pity:

So far I have failed to find an acceptable explanation of the disdain and ridicule poured upon this natural emotion. I can only suppose that some hidden and powerful financial, political, or military interest requires this usually so kind-hearted people [i.e. Americans] to force itself into such an attitude. Having been born in central Europe, brought up in the nineteenth century, having tried to improve my mind with French and Russian literature as well as that of my native country, and living as I now do among a nation [again, America] frankly addicted to pity and human sympathy, even sentimentality – with all this, even if I should live to be a hundred, I should still never have any use for this by no means American, and certainly not Continental, but decidedly British attitude toward human suffering and its manifestations.

Self-pity!

When Jesus on the cross ‘cried with a loud voice, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani’…What was it, what was it, if not the most moving and imperishable example of self-pity in all history? (p. 277)

Of course, Molnar’s remarks are neither gratuitous nor unrelated to Ms. Bartha, as is made tearfully obvious on the next page:

‘I’m not ashamed of myself, dear,’ I told her behind my closed lips and clenched teeth as I stood there on the corner of 42nd Street [after her death]. ‘I’m not even ashamed in this supercilious society for pitying myself so unspeakably, because you left me alone in my old age, in this cold, dark, upset world, which is quite without hope for me. I had only one tiny guiding light, one prop, one friend, one adviser, one helper, and you were it.’

I stood there for a long time in my dark glasses on the noisy corner, saying nothing.

‘You’re crying again,’ she said. ‘That’s awful. Hold it back.’

‘I can’t. I’m simply incapable of it….And anyway what difference will it make to my condition or the condition of the world if I use strength of mind or drugs to keep a few drops of warm salt water forcibly in my system instead of letting them flow out?’ (p. 278)

The reader must keep this deeply bereaved context in mind during Molnar’s prolonged digressions into theatrical name-dropping, set in one Bohemian café after another, all as the world burns in the 1930s and 40s. The reader should also forgive Molnar – well into his sixties at the time – for not “doing anything” about Nazism besides fleeing from it into memories of happier times. He and Ms. Bartha have lost everything: Their family and friends have been murdered, their homes looted and destroyed, their entire world gone.

Even after hearing from the generals [who could not help her locate her late brother], she had rehearsed Charlie McCarthy faces in front of the mirror to cheer me up. The whole scene as we stood together, making faces before my mirror (“two broken human beings” as she put it), these two distorted and wretchedly grinning faces, this half-crazed pantomime duet, very nearly drove me into a faint. But I kept on anyway so that she should think she had succeeded in cheering me up. I did it in a mood verging on melancholia in the medical sense, in my sixty-eighth year, around me a world in dissolution, vying with Wanda to see who could make the most preposterous Charlie McCarthy face in the mirror. (p. 327)

The recounting of literary acquaintances, the remembrances of long-gone hotels and restaurants, the reconstructions of torn-up drafts of long-flopped plays, and a final tableau of a ventriloquist dummy are all that they – now he – have left.

Molnar does not rage at the dying of the light, nor does he go gentle into that good night. Instead he spins together every thin wisp of immortality that he can grasp. He remembers, and he cries.

Companion in Exile is a manual on losing, a primer of aging, and a guide to dying. We will all need it sooner or later.

 

Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

This book is a story of paradise lost and regained. Janie grows up with a mixed set of playmates, innocent of the awareness of race, including her own. At the first sign of sexual consciousness, Janie is banished by her grandmother into the “protection” of an arranged marriage akin to slavery. This first husband intends to employ her like a donkey before the plow; Janie soon escapes into a second marriage, to a man whose prejudice against women – “Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows,” he says (p. 71) – makes her a mere fixture in his store. Then, she tries her luck with a third man and is finally treated as an equal.

Along the way, Janie experiences, and Hurston delineates, a series of razor-sharp truths, such as:

She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market-place to sell. Been set for still-bait. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine. (p. 90)

On the subject of God, or at least gods:

All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood. (p. 145)

And whether or not God is love, Hurston includes a few specimens of the latter – “She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love.” (p. 89) and “Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love” (p. 128) – that put me in mind of the love on display in Magda Szabó’s The Door, which I recently reviewed.

Hurston’s likening of the freedom or slavery of life to a “horizon” (p. 89) is resonating.

My favorite spoken line is “Dis town is full uh trouble and compellment.” (p. 172)

My favorite name is Stew Beef.

“Say, whut y’all doin’ in heah?”

“Eatin’,” Stew Beef told him. “Dey got beef stew, so you know Ah’d be heah.” (p. 149)

Book Review: The Professor, by Charlotte Brontë

The masterful style of The Professor is reason enough to read it. Where it excels is in its unsentimental and unsparing treatment of human nature. Here is a withering description of students:

Most of them could lie with audacity when it appeared advantageous to do so. All understood the art of speaking fair when a point was to be gained and could with consummate skill and at a moment’s notice turn the cold shoulder the instant civility ceased to be profitable….Close friendships were forbidden by the rules of the school, and no one girl seemed to cultivate more regard for another than was just necessary to secure a companion when solitude would have been irksome. (p. 127)

And here is a blistering description of students or perhaps children in general:

Frances toiled for and with her pupils like a drudge, but it was long ere her conscientious exertions were rewarded by anything like docility on their part, because they saw that they had power over her, inasmuch as by resisting her painful attempts to convince, persuade, control – by forcing her to the employment of coercive measures – they could inflict upon her exquisite suffering. Human beings – human children especially – seldom deny themselves the pleasure of exercising a power which they are conscious of possessing, even though that power consist only in a capacity to make others wretched; a pupil whose sensations are duller than those of his instructor, while his nerves are tougher and his bodily strength perhaps greater, has an immense advantage over that instructor, and he will generally use it relentlessly, because the very young, very healthy, very thoughtless, know neither how to sympathize nor how to spare. (p. 160)

Maybe you should avoid The Professor if you’re a professor. On the one hand, it will serve as a prime example of excellent writing, one that you will want to impress upon your students; but on the other hand, it warns you that they will throw it back in your face.

The only other thing that occurs to me is that the prevailing rottenness conspires to paint the hero and heroine in an impossibly conscientious light. How can there be only two (or at most three or four) good people in the world?

 

Book Review: The Shakespeare Requirement, by Julie Schumacher

Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement is a spot-on spoof of academia and its many indignities and absurdities. I most enjoyed Schumacher’s passing but poignant satire of the gratuitous, labor-multiplying technology that has come to dominate professors’ lives. At Payne University, where the book is set, one vexation of this sort is the finicky P-Cal scheduling system, which never seems to work for the protagonist, Jason Fitger, who is chair of the English Department. At one point, when Fitger is trying to track down his nemesis, Econ chair Roland Gladwell, the latter’s secretary, rather than simply telling Fitger where Gladwell is, refers him to P-Cal. As is usually the case, Fitger’s only recourse is sarcasm:

“Here we are…two human beings, inches apart, and yet what you’re telling me is that I need to go back downstairs to my own office, to my computer – except that I don’t have a working computer – and spend thirty minutes searching for a website that will allow me to send a message that you could simply write down with a pencil on a piece of paper, right there on your desk. Do you find that strange?” (p. 64)

Of course, it’s not strange, or rather, it’s not unusual, and our only recourse, like Fitger’s, is sarcasm, or satire, of which this book is a fine primer.

 

Book Review: The Door, by Magda Szabó

A friend once obtained permission to tour a mental health facility. A therapy group was meeting. A woman rose and began to relate the terrible abuse she commonly received from her mother, which included belittling, manipulation, and hitting. When she was finished, another participant stepped forward and assured the first speaker that, however hurtful her mother appeared to be, the thing she must never forget was that “Your mother loves you.” Although he’d been conferred observer status only, my friend could not refrain from providing his diagnosis. “Whatever you do,” he addressed the hapless daughter, “you must never forget that your mother doesn’t love you.”

I thought of my friend’s story while reading The Door, Magda Szabó’s novel about the housekeeper Emerence and the theorem that might as well be named for her: that one’s love for a certain person is often inversely proportional to the kindness with which one treats that person. After hiring Emerence to take care of the housework while she writes, the narrator (Magda?) soon finds that Emerence’s love is of the toughest sort. “It was because of our mutual love that she went on stabbing me till I fell to my knees” (p. 157) is an observation that just about sums up the whole book.

The quality of the writing (and Len Rix’s translation) makes the details worth reading, just as a good sportscaster can make even the most brutal prize fight artistically meaningful. Here’s a lively scene involving Magda’s dog, Viola, and a deeply hurt Emerence, whose guest has failed to attend a meticulously-prepared dinner:

Like someone coming round from sedation, [Emerence] shuddered violently, then hurled herself at the happily munching dog and beat him all over with the handle of the serving fork. She called him everything – an ungrateful monster, a shameless liar, a heartless capitalist. Viola squealed, jumped down from the chair and lay on the rug, for her inscrutable judgement to be carried out upon him. He never ran when she beat him, never tried to protect himself. The horror, with all its unreality, was dreamlike. Viola cowered and trembled under the blows, so terrified he couldn’t even swallow the last mouthful. It fell from his jaws onto my mother’s favorite rug. The way Emerence went after him with the serving fork, I thought she was going to stab him. It all happened in a flash. I was so frightened I began to scream. But just then the old woman crouched down beside the dog, lifted up his head, and kissed him between the ears. Viola whined with relief, and licked the hand that had beaten him. (p. 63)

On another occasion, Emerence presents Magda and her husband with an appalling quantity of tchotchkes and then flies into a rage when they are improperly displayed. “‘God knows what I love about you [Emerence says], but whatever it is, you don’t deserve it. Maybe, as you get older, you’ll acquire a bit of taste.’” (p. 81) This rebuke comes after Magda attempts to excuse Emerence to her husband. “I tried in vain to explain to him that the old woman expressed herself through means determined by her own interests. Everything here – he had to accept – was motivated by love. This was her peculiar was of demonstrating her feelings.” (p. 75)

While reading The Door, I often found myself saying, “With love like that, who needs hatred?” and I’ve indeed tried to avoid that kind of love whenever possible. (I recall an NPR report on American gang violence, in which someone explained that people seeking to leave gangs were frequently beaten by their former peers because “There’s a lot of love there.”) Maybe I’m just being naïve, though. “Emerence Love” certainly exists; not only does it form the main subject of The Door, but it also characterizes God’s love as it is found in the Old Testament, as opposed to the New. Emerence is the jealous God of Exodus 20:5, yet to be recast as the God that is love (1 John 4:8) and the love that is never jealous (1 Corinthians 13:4). There’s actually a religious undercurrent in The Door, with Emerence expressing skepticism at Magda’s Catholicism and having a history of helping Jews in the Holocaust.

Questions of religion aside, we all know on a psychological level that some of the most violent human feelings can be twisted mutations of love, the results of love’s wounding in youth. It’s clear in Szabó’s novel that Emerence was an abused girl; hence the love she expresses is of a tortured and torturing kind. Emerence is shown to have loved her pets and to have had them taken away from her. It is quite plausible that her ability to metabolize love suffered at least partly as a result. My not terribly amiable grandfather once told us the story of how his parents once served him his pet rabbit, and the recitation, I feel, spoke volumes.

The Door, at any rate, is such a volume.

Book Review: Amadis of Gaul, Books III & IV

I read the Place and Behm translation, which puts Books I and II in Volume One and Books III and IV in Volume Two. I waited over a year between volumes. As a result, I forgot what had contributed to the main conflict narrated in Volume Two, and I also forgot many of the characters, especially the many whose names begin with G. I would advise readers to tackle the whole thing straight through, if possible.

Volume Two drags. There is a lot of preparation for the Big Battle, and the pacing is quite slow during the preparation. The beginning, covering Amadis’s eastern adventures, and the end, covering a couple of extra adventures, are the most exciting parts.

One thing that continues to strike me about chivalric literature is the paucity of emotional narration accompanying dialogue (or action). One example is:

“Beware, sire, for you are committing great cruelty and a great sin, and very quickly you could receive such a lashing from the Lord on high that your great brilliance and fame might be greatly obscured….”

“Good uncle,” said the king, “I well remember all that you have said to me before, but I cannot do anything more….”

“Then, sire,” said the count, “I ask of you permission to leave for my own estate.”

“God be with you,” said the king. (p. 281)

One might have expected the king to “redden” or “bristle” as he is reprimanded and abandoned by one of his vassals (his own uncle, no less), or for the narration to spare a phrase or two to convey his feelings. However, the sixteenth-century text, like many others of the time, remains minimalist and leaves the psychoanalyzing to the reader. Perhaps the emotional narration is absent when the emotion should be obvious.

On the other hand, when emotion is not discernible from a character’s speech or behavior – as usually occurs when the character’s speech is counterfeit or his behavior ironic – the omniscient narrator does intervene. For example, after a certain knight loses a battle and is then treated cordially by his former foes, he dutifully returns the cordiality; but he is inwardly angry, for, as the narrator explains:

He was not satisfied in his desire, because all this honor and gain had come to him after being overcome and reduced to dire straits….He consoled himself and dissimulated as a man of great prudence so that no one might perceive that his thought was concerned with anything other than considering himself the lord and superior of everyone, and believing that with great honor he had won it. So with this pretended joy and with a very complacent appearance he came to where the queen was. (pp. 565-566)

In sum, the omniscient narrator only appears when there is a mismatch between appearance and reality. He is a guide only to what is hidden. If nothing is consciously being hidden, then his services are unnecessary. Unless otherwise stated, then, all is as it seems.

By way of comparison, Thomas Malory, who was active a full century earlier than Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo (the compiler of Amadis), did not, I recall, employ omniscient narration in such a way. In fact, Malory’s more consistent disinclination to explain his characters’ actions leaves a great deal of very pleasant work in the hands of the reader, as he is compelled to supply motives and draw lessons from Malory’s often mysterious, bare-bones narration. My conclusion is that Malory is more of a puzzle than Montalvo, more challenging and perhaps, therefore, more rewarding.