Quartet for the End of Time

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Johanna Skibsrud transports a trio of fictional characters through some lesser known historical events of the first half of the Twentieth Century. I love historical fiction that teaches. Reading “Quartet for the End of Time” I learned more about the Bonus Army and composer Olivier Messiaen, from whose composition the book’s title is borrowed. The vignette near the end of the novel recites how the composer Messiaen wrote his unusual piece for piano, violin, cello and clarinet while a prisoner of war at the Nazi Stalag VIII-A camp. It is unusual piece because it is part duet, part trio and part quartet. It employs non-retrogradable rhythms whose notes, like a palindrome, read the same right to left and visa-versa. For the musically inclined there is a good explanation at http://www.musicteachers.co.uk/journal/2000-10_messiaen_3.html. The Messiaen subplot is biographical and to me is one of the more interesting parts of the novel because it encompasses a subtext of the novel: the juxtaposition of faith with the singularity of time.  Ms. Skibsrud addresses relativistic time and space at various intervals throughout her novel but it does not dominate the work. Understood in this context the book’s title may be a little misleading.

In a description of a World War I cavalry charge, a principal character realizes that “there is actually no actual distance to traverse between the future and the past.”

“The future, he saw now, would always arrive a moment too late, in what would (by the time it arrived) already be the past. It was not the future that needed to be anticipated and arranged, but the proper recognition of it when it came.” Her character wants to stop humans from pitting themselves against the future as if it were a foe, but to become the future.

Ms. Skibsrud captures the out-of-body experience of soldiers during infantry charges from World War I trenches. A contrarian understanding of war is drawn from the experience of the carnage. “War is not a waste. It was the furthest thing from that. Its power was not in its destructiveness-but in the promise of something.” It is embodying of the future in the moment.

There is a dystopian human centric viewpoint expressed by a character who witnesses the Nazi’s medical experiments, all for logical reasons.

“Human beings, however-they have capacity to reason through almost endless amounts of change; they approach it gradually, intellectually you see- they even try to exploit it to their own ends. It is reason, not biological life, that strives to promote itself. Life works against reason, but reason always prevails. At the end of the world, when it comes, it will be because reason has triumphed finally above all else. You see, he said. It almost succeeded here.”

The publisher may be at fault for over-emphasizing the Messiaen element in the book’s jacket. It is subservient to the plot. The prose intermittently captures temporal relativity, particularly on the last page which is Biblical in cadence and offers an interrogatory summation: will faith destroy both time and body. ” Or from his mouth come a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations; which he will rule, from this day forward– just as those who came before him– with a rod of iron? This destruction is presage by the fictionalized composer’s reading of Revelation in Chapter 10 of the Book of Apocalypse. All things and time are destroyed. In this, the rhythm of the novel might seem discordant. The prose during the years the Bonus Army traveled the country while waiting to receive their bonus for serving in World War I is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Okies in of ‘Mice and Men”. Both are drawn from the Depression so it is an appropriate style. There is a small Lennie like character.

The history of the Bonus Army’s rebellion against civilian authority had it germination in the Continental Army, which evicted the weak Congress of the Confederation of States from Philadelphia. Despite Alexander Hamilton’s urging Pennsylvania would not use its militia to repel the rebellious elements of the Continental Army who had not been paid during their service during the Revolutionary War. The District of Columbia has its origin in the distrust of States to protect Congress, and D.C. is excluded from the restrictions of the Posse Comitatus Act which forbade the use of the U.S. military for domestic police activity.

The novel also captures allied military action against the Bolsheviks in Siberia. Andrea Barrett’s ‘Archangel’, which I recently reviewed, does the same but on the western front. There is intelligent writing about human communication in this sequence.  Hiding with an incommunicable old man from death at the hands of roving bands of soldiers, a character recalls the rhythm of time. Near death the mind focuses: time lengthens as it is appears shortened; the space between notes- the silence- actually has a sound.

“He laid perfectly still, his thin chin pointed straight ahead, but I saw that his lips moved in what I took to be a half-whispered prayer. I listened carefully, and found that if I stilled my heart and pressed my ear as far into the emptiness that stretched between us as I could, I could hear the sound his words made against that emptiness. I could hear, that is, not the sound itself, which rang in my head without meaning, but instead the space of encounter between the words and the air. Between his utterance of those words and the air’s receipt of them, which was dumb and uncomprehending as my own.”

No parallel is drawn to the extended frequency range of animals and their ability to communicate through vibrations as might musicians playing in a quartet. The expanded musical boundaries of Messiaen discordance must exhumed by the reader because faith seems to be a more paramount concern to Ms. Skibscrud as it was for Messiaen. Understood in this context, the book’s title may be appropriate. There is a Corinthian 13 moment:

“.. for a brief but beautiful moment he could actually see how it all fit together, just like Emmett said that it did– but at such a remove that, even as he saw it, he knew he would never understand it, and even that became, in that moment, a strange comfort. Was conscience — in either sense: to be, or to have — simply a matter of locating a recognizable pattern between things?  A forcing of circumstances into a shape that, if Emmett was correct, could at best be considered figurative, provisional– abstract?  Sustainable only within, and according to, the intensely personal light lent by an individual mind?

Yes. Certainly. There must be (Emmett was right) something larger, outside and beyond all that; something that did not bend or conform to such a limited perspective but shaped it all the same. And if this was so– well, then, conscience itself could only be considered a reaction to, a figurative expression of, that which existed beyond its control. One did not, indeed suffer the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ ; nor could one, through simple opposition, end them. They existed beyond all allegory; every possible appeal.”

Episodically the Cold war communist scare that blanketed the post-World War I period of the Bonus Army until after World War II is embedded in the plot.

Alden is the principal character of the book. He is the son of a well-connected U.S. judge who later becomes a Congressman. Like his younger sister, Sutton, he is a child of privilege. He rebellious and youthful communist party leanings and is recruited to be an underground agent. His failed act of sabotage during the early stages of the Bonus Army result in his capture. His father protects him, by having his child sister frame Arthur, an innocent man, who his son Douglas searches for throughout the book. Most of the historical elements are told through Alden, with the Bonus Army’s travails reflected through Douglas’ life. Sutton’s life is left open to conjecture, much like some players in Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ have much idle time as the quartet becomes a trio or duet.

There are very interesting philosophical and religious elements employed in this novel. Despite the book’s epic sweep, it might be considered a religious novel. The epic sweep makes the novel commercial. The thematic undercurrents make the book interesting and foreshadow stronger writing from Ms. Skibsrud.

 

The Beggar Maid

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

image001

Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, oil on canvas, 1884
(Tate Britain, London)

Alice Munro’s collection of short stories entitled in Canada “Who Do You Think You Are?” and in other countries, “The Beggar Maid”, was published in 1977. It begins with her first story published in “The New Yorker”, “Royal Beatings”. It is a famous story of hers. The first two paragraphs are gems.

“Royal Beating. That was Flo’s promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating.

The word Royal lolled on Flo’s tongue, took on trappings. Rose had a need to picture things, to pursue absurdities, that was stronger than the need to stay out of trouble, and instead of taking this threat to heart she pondered: how is a beating royal? She came up with a tree-lined avenue, a crowd of formal spectators, some white horses and black slaves. Someone knelt, and the blood came leaping out like banners. An occasion both savage and splendid. In real life they didn’t approach such dignity, and it was only Flo who tried to supply the event with some high air of necessity and regret. Rose and her father soon got beyond anything presentable.”

I am not the first to ponder the derivation of the phrase “royal beating”. It may be a beating writ large. Alternatively it could have a historical connotation. In the Tudor and Stuart monarchies of the 15th and 16th century there was a member of court who was tasked as the whipping boy. The word scapegoat in part derives from this unfortunate station. In order to render psychological pain to the crown prince a young member of the court was charge to be the whipping boy; absorbing the physical pain of beatings for the crown prince’s wrongs. Whether this analogous role was intended for Rose, the aggrieved insecure step-daughter of the ill-tempered Flo, I am not certain. For her generation “wait  to your father gets home” was a role meted out with both guilt and enthusiasm by parents and etched in the lifelong memories of their children.

Ms. Munro uses the unabashed Flo to turn a phrase and to play with the innocent

“Shortie McGill is fucking Fanny McGill. Brother and sister. Relations performing. That was Flo’s word for it: perform. Back in the country, back on the hill farms she came from, Flo said people had gone dotty, been known to eat boiled hay, and perform with their too-close relations. Before Rose understood what she meant she used to imagine some makeshift stage, some rickety old barn stage, where members of a family got up and gave silly songs and recitations. What a performance! Flo would say in disgust, blowing out smoke, referring not to any single act but to everything along that line, past and present and future, going on anywhere in the world. People’s diversions, like pretensions, could not stop astounding her.”

This book has been described as intertwining short stories; neither novel nor novella. It is a distinction perhaps relevant only to publishers and the benefactors of literary awards. Rose is the book’s principal character. The arc of time spans from teenage hostage of Flo in a petty poor rural Canadian town, until Flo’s exit to a nursing home. “Who Do You Think You Are?” is the last story. It is a testament to the epigenetics of smothering mediocrity that lingers in those more intelligent but insecure who think they have escaped. Flo is a petulant, distrustful, curmudgeon whose ephemeral distaste for airs is carved with her barbed tongue. Rose whose relationships and career as an actress has bobbed. At its apex Flo attends an award ceremony at which she will be an honoree. Subliminally, without expectation, she hopes for life’s one complement or acknowledgment from Flo, who surprisingly has shown up.

“She had always been decently, soberly, cheaply, dressed, but now it seemed she spent some money and asked advice. She was wearing a mauve and purple checked pants suit, and beads like strings of white and yellow popcorn. Her hair was covered by a thick gray-blue wig, pulled low on her forehead like a woollen cap. From the vee of the jacket, and its too-short sleeves, her neck and wrists stuck out brown and warty as if covered with bark. When she saw Rose she stood still. She seemed to be waiting– not just for Rose to go over to her but for her feelings about the scene in front of her to crystallize.

Soon they did.

‘Look at that nigger! said Flo in a loud voice, before Rose was anywhere near her. Her tone was one of simple, gratified astonishment, as if she had been peering down the Grand Canyon or seen oranges growing on a tree.

She meant George, who was getting one of the awards.”

A war of the Roses, her heralds are the scars from a life-time of self-inflicted beatings. Like Flo the genetic disposition to poor upbringing impails her. She continuously replenishes failed affairs.

Alice Munro’s “The Beggar Maid” turns the legend of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid” on its head. In the legend, memorialized by Lord Alfred Tennyson, an African king indifferent to women, falls in love with a beggar maid. Transcending practical considerations and social class she becomes his queen.

“Her arms across her breast she laid;
She was more fair than words can say:
Bare-footed came the beggar maid
Before the king Cophetua.
In robe and crown the king stept down,
To meet and greet her on her way;
“It is no wonder,” said the lords,
“She is more beautiful than day”.

As shines the moon in clouded skies,
She in her poor attire was seen:
One praised her ancles, one her eyes,
One her dark hair and lovesome mien:
So sweet a face, such angel grace,
In all that land had never been:
Cophetua sware a royal oath:
“This beggar maid shall be my queen!”

The Beggar Maid (written 1833, published 1842) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Rose becomes the object of affection of a fellow student, a self-absorbed “intellectual” at a mediocre small college, rebelling against becoming heir to a prosperous Canadian mercantile business. He thinks of Rose from poverty as the beggar in the Edward Burnes-Jones painting. She is his bird of prey. As an object of desire she holds sway over Patrick until reluctantly she entraps herself in a loveless marriage  that is economically convenient.  He reverts to the family business and the pretensions of his nouveau riche class. She embarks on a failed affair, divorce, and the freedom to return to her class. She knows dreams are not meant to be lived. As an actress she gets to play bit parts.

Be they chapters or stories, there are excellent ones: failed relationships; end of life transition to nursing homes. As in many of Ms Munro’s works, the stories are from a woman’s perspective. Ms. Munro is a great observer, who can translate the visual into language. This is small town literature. I thought of Richard Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool” as its U.S. equal in this regard. Each story embeds digressions with new characters, subplots and subtexts that all flow together. Writers who want to hone their craft should read this book.

It ends with Ralph Gillespie. Rose’s childhood classmate. Like Rose he was an outcast. His talent was to mimic the town’s fool who had the literary name Milton Homer. Ralph continued his act long after the original was forgotten. The mimicry transformed him into the fool. On his death Rose realizes that he may have been the only man with whom she had a quiet understanding and a sense of comfort and completeness.

For Dr. M. Talmadge

Tags

,

Since you closed your blog to comments I thought I would respond to your follow, through my blog. A little unorthodox, but perhaps you will read this. I apologize to my other followers.

First, nice Southern name.

Second, thanks for following my blog. I have never tried writing, but like you I believe a lot of technical mechanics could get in the way. I learned after college that it is best to keep things simple. Write what you know and what you feel.

Third, reading a fair amount of what I consider to be good literature, I find many authors keep their writing spare. There is no universal truth to this, since many don’t. I think the latter is harder to do. The former I feel avoids pretension. Better to let the reader imagine. Avoid trite adjective and metaphors. They slow the narrative in my view. An example of what appeals to me, might be as follows. You can compare it to see if you prefer the original.

“To the west the ocean horizon is cloudless. To the south the beach stretches. The inland hills merge with a blue-gray hydrocarbon twilight haze. The immature waves belch from the black depths. They spit white foam across the dark volcanic boulders that form the steep sides of the jetty.”

I prefer to play a tight game of Scrabble. Some find this annoying. No universal truths.

Fourth, you may want to read Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being”. I previously reviewed the novel. She shows rather than tells. Japanese characters and words are written in the native tongue. She would not say X is the Japanese word for poison. She would provide the character. Her novel is a mini-language course. She provides English translations of the Japanese word a couple of times and then uses the Japanese word afterwards. It is a different style. I like literature that teaches.

The Luminaries

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

This is not a review, but a mea culpa. I tend not to read mysteries and thrillers. I had no inclination to read Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Booker Prize winning novel, but having read three other fantastic 2013 Booker short-listed novels I felt compelled to see if this 830 page “who done it” novel was superior. It is of course comparing apples to oranges. Some books like “Harvest” had beautiful prose and atmospherics. “A Tale for the Time Being” was a novel that informed as well as entertained. “The Testament of Mary” was imaginative in purpose and execution. “The Luminaries”is a throw back to literature of another era. Reminiscent of Russian literature both in length and the mass of characters and relationships. It comes with a character chart and at about 350 pages in, Ms Catton kindly provides a summary of what has transpired until then. The summary is about five pages. The book also reminds me of the serialized writing of Dickens, although it wasn’t and isn’t equal in my view.

Due to the fact that other books I had taken out needed to be returned before this one, I stopped reading this one at about page 380 and read the other books. As one of the other books was the equally long “The Goldfinch”, it may have colored my decision about this book. Both have proved disappointing to me, although in fairness I am only partly through “The Luminaries”. Over the weekend, I read an interview with Jodi Piccoult. She dislikes Russian literature. Too time-consuming.

If you like puzzles you may like “The Luminaries”. For me, adding a new hedge to a maze, where the writing is not exquisite, the characters not memorable, the story not educational, is not compelling. At a certain point I stop caring; particularly if there will be 400 pages of more of the same. I keep thinking of many other books that I rather be reading rather than forcing myself to finish this novel. I may be making a mistake by giving up on this book, but I do have a sense of relief.

The Goldfinch

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

This novel being all the rage; widely reviewed; and resulting in a Pulitzer for Donna Tartt leaves me little to discuss. Accordingly, this review will be short and personal.

A follower of this blog wrote me and said she decided not to read the book partly because of the hype. Some reviewers have said that in breadth of adventure it is comparable to “Great Expectations”. I will avoid this comparison, but given the hype I did have great expectations. I was expecting a literary tour-de-force. It is not. It is pulp fiction.

There is nothing wrong with pulp fiction and this is a very readable book. I don’t think it is an award-winning novel. There is some scholarship about woodworking, the art world and art dealers, and drugs. The locales where the action takes place, New York City, Las Vegas and Amsterdam are described. The parallels between dysfunctional low and high society are articulated. There is the emptiness of lives scarred and battered since childhood. The inherited addictions. Love lost, never to be regained.

The characters are not unique. The prose is commercial. The ending disappointing. When the painting was on exhibit for 3 months at The Frick it drew huge crowds. The curators had expected Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, also on loan from the Netherlands, to be the draw. In a city that knows Trumps, Vermeer got trumped. Ms. Tartt’s first acknowledgment is to a Dutch publisher. Her earlier work “Secret History” did very well in the Netherlands, so commercially a Dutch connection certainly would appeal to European marketers.

For me the best line in the book was borrowed from Picasso: “Bad artists copy, good artists steal”. The same may be true for writers.

I would not discourage anyone from reading “The Goldfinch”. At 771 pages it makes a good beach read, if you don’t burn easily.

The Wall

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Jurek Becker wrote “Jacob the Liar” which I have not read. One of the stories in this collection is taken from that book. The best story in this anthology is “The Wall”.

Holocaust stories are pervasive. This one is made more compelling because it is told from the perspective of a young boy who is doing what kids would do under normal circumstances. Parents and age offer some shelter for children. They recognize but don’t understand altered states. They still try to live in their child’s world.

The child and his family are forced to vacate the ghetto and are moved to a transit camp next to it. A guarded wall separates the two. Conditions in the ghetto are poor, but exponentially deteriorate with each transfer. This is confusing to a child. The toys and possessions that are his life are hurriedly left behind. A potato is now a highly valued object.

The boy and his friends from the ghetto, now in the camp, decide to risk climbing the wall and returning to their homes to retrieve their valuable possessions. They are not ignorant of the risks. It is however, the usual childhood adventure of proving who is not scared. Love, humanity and gripping fear pervade the tale. What resonates is the contrast between children and adults in an imposed gruesome world. Unlike many short stories, the reader of holocaust stories unfortunately knows the unstated conclusion.

“The Tale of the Sick Princess” is a short fable that was in “Jacob the Liar”. The moral is you can be cured by what you believe, even if it is fanciful.

“The Most Popular Family Story” has the feel of a Catskill routine. Laughter is contagious and the humor is sometimes in the telling and not in the tale. Here it is the retelling of a tale that has been a family custom for laughter. It unifies the family and puzzles those not in the clan. It is also a source for remembrance of those who can no longer hear the story.

“The Suspect” is based in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. It is an “enemy of the State” story. Fear is self-regulating. Suspicion of anti-State activity by innuendo forces the voluntary withdrawal of the narrator from all social interaction for a year. Only fear itself, is what need be feared.

The author had been resident in the Lodz ghetto, two transit camps and of East Germany while under Communist control. “The Invisible City” is autobiographical. Photographs of the Lodz ghetto were discovered and Mr. Becker hoped he could find pictures of his parents. He admits in the story that he was only 2 years old when his family came to the ghetto and 5 years old when they left. He never knew what his mother looked like and he had no memories of the ghetto nor the camp. On a personal level his historical fiction is in search for memories of himself. It is an invisible city he cannot enter.

The penultimate story “Romeo” is miscast. “A Matter of Convenience” would be more appropriate. It is my second favorite story of the collection. The cost of living in West Berlin is to dear for an émigré to the city who has found work in West Berlin to send money home to his family. He learns that he can shorten the time he needs to work in Berlin by engaging in currency arbitrage through daily transit to East Berlin. The catch is that you must return to West Berlin at midnight, although you can turn right around and go back. There is a border fee to be paid, so if you have a place to stay in East Berlin during the week you can save some of this fee by reducing the number of transits. West Berliners cannot own property in East Berlin, and there is no transit between East and West Berlin during the weekends. Men in West Berlin who engage in this practice find a woman in East Berlin who has an apartment with enough room to stay in, or who are willing to have a relationship. Some of these women are professionals, but many, including the hookers, want to barter for goods from West Berlin. The “Romeo” in this story engages in this trade, but it is an unprofessional relationship of mutual exchange. The story is not judgmental but reflects the reality that the value we place on ourselves is often a function of circumstance.

Mr. Becker’s widow provides an introduction to the book and continues to promote his writings. What is interesting about “The Invisible City” is the author’s acceptance of daily life even amid deprivation. The barber in the ghetto still goes about his life as a barber: Che Sera, Sera. It is not uncommon to witness this demeanor in survivors. The body and spirit are adaptable.

Archangel

Tags

, , , , ,

It is 1908. A rural community. Mechanical by necessity, imaginative by nature. Almost a commune of explorers, testing the ability of humans to soar above the ground other than by balloon.

Andrea Barrett’s collection of short stories bearing the title of one of the stories- Archangel- revive historical fiction often with a scientific twist. “The Investigators” reminds us that there was a significant age of invention around the turn of the 20th Century. Like the computer, the telephone compressed communication. Both great achievements, but not equal to the wonder of flight. In our time, the equivalent was space flight and the landing on the moon. These were moments of awe and wonderment. They inspired a future generation; a back story of “The Investigators”. To live in such a time!

“The Ether of Space” and “The Island” are about breaking free of the binders of orthodoxy. The first involves the challenge of Einstein’s theory of relativity and the latter Darwin’s theory of evolution. The principal explorers in both stories are women. Each accept the challenge of considering a new theory during times when they were not accepted. I kept thinking of Elizabeth Gilbert’s satisfying book “The Signature of All Things” (reviewed May 17, 2014) as I was reading “The Island”.

“The Particles” is about the cut-throat politics of scientific research. More than funding, it is name recognition and the legacy from being the first; or at least the remembered, if not the first. The brilliant, but frail and passive, succumb to the aggressive and the conniving of those who are psychologically flawed.

The title story departs from science and explores a historical event at the end of World War I. The Americans and British have tried to mount a military offensive against the Bolsheviks. It is a story told by a nurse who is trying to balance military duty with the physical and psychological damage that war causes soldiers; particularly those who are required to fight and die for a losing cause they have no belief in.

Ms. Barrett is an award-winning author. “The Servants of the Map” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and “Ship Fever” received a National Book Award. Both are short story collections. While a capable writer, it is the themes she explores and not her prose or the characters that distinguishes her writing. I particularly like “The Investigators” as it was narrated by a young boy whose imagination is sparked. “Archangel” was interesting because I never knew about the event.

The UnAmericans

Tags

, , , , , , ,

There are many good writers who capture place and character, but don’t transport you into the scene.

“The day outside is hazy and gray; the fan on the counter blows dust. Jell-O spins slowly in the a glass case. The radio, always a notch too loud for my taste, is turned up even higher for news hour. British troops have left Egypt, the Army-McCarthy Hearings are in full swing and the man who invented the zipper has dropped dead.

“Can’t you see table six flagging you down? Alan asks. “You think people like coffee cold?” Alan Mandelbaum. Always behind me since we were kids, always watching.

I pick up the coffeepot and move down the aisle of customers. The regulars are at the counter, talking about Roger Maris, as if they’d been the ones up at bat– as if they never left the Bronx for Los Angeles. Beside them are their wives distracted, knitting, fat leather pockebooks on their laps. And there’s my father, in a red vinyl booth near the back. His head is bent over his lunch, so all I can see are the newspaper stained fingers gripping a turkey melt, even though it is Tuesday afternoon and he’s promised to out and look for a job.”

I had gone to the library to take out books and hit pay dirt. In a gluttonous display equal to guys in hardware stores I took out Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries”, Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”, Cynthia Ozick’s “Dictation” (which I just reviewed), Andrea Barrett’s “Archangel”, Jurek Becker’s “The Wall” and Molly Antopol’s “the UnAmericans”. Given the length of the first two award-winning novels I tried to renew them all. Surprisingly, only “the UnAmericans” was on hold and could not be renewed. It was the only one I had not started. I became curious why this debut collection of short stories was now in demand.

Ms. Antopol was a recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. This collection of short stories has now earned her a nomination for the National Book Award. It was not the testimonials from Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award recipients on the back of the book that encouraged me to borrow this book. It was the photograph of the author. She is attractive, it was her eyes that caught my attention. They are a little asymmetrical. One is a little higher than the other. One is a little wider and more open. It was the one slightly lower and more closed that attracted me. This eye seemed determined, a steel eye. It conveyed action, taking no prisoners. I thought the stories might be the same.

“The UnAmericans” could be considered Jewish literature, if having principal characters who are Jewish is the distinction. There are some cultural and political Jewish or Israeli aspects to the stories, but the characters’ problems are universal. Ms. Antopol lived in Israel after college. Her last name reflects her heritage. She revealed in the January 28, 2014 edition of the New Yorker (href=”http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-book-of-antopol-or-can-we-ever-know-the-past” title=”antopol”>) that her family comes from the village of Antopol in Belarus. The article describes the origin of some of the stories in this collection: family history; Antopol’s resistance during WWII; and the Red-Scare. Ms. Antopol’s great-grandmother was also named Molly and given tradition, for whom she likely was named. Whether her legal name is Antopol I do not know.

“My Grandmother Tells Me This Story” is drawn from resistance fighters in Antopol during World War II. It may not be family history, but it reflects the determination I saw in the photograph of the author. A young girl is sent by her parents through the sewers to live with resistance fighters in the forest to save her life. Now a grandmother in America, her granddaughter wants to learn about her history, having only heard about the heroics of her grandfather, the leader of the local resistance. It is not uncommon that those who excel during war, cannot thrive during peace. Her grandfather was such a person. The grandmother thrived in both. Quiet, permissive, ruthless. She trumped the others.

“The Old World” is about a marital rebound that fails due to age and the cultural difference between emigres and descendants from the same country. There is the irony of the parent-child belief system: what parents reject, the child adopts. In this case, the assimilated Brooklyn American Jewish father is likely agnostic. His daughter, to his chagrin, marries an Orthodox Israeli. Upon the failure of his short-lived rebound marriage, the father meekly reverts to prayer.

“Minor Heroics” is set in Israel, but is the universal role reversal story between a dominant older hero brother and an unheralded younger brother. It is a dynamic story that captures and translates the emotions of the characters to the reader. Human fragility is but a circumstance away.

“Duck and Cover” is drawn from the McCarthy Red Scare period. Ms. Antopol’s lefty parents lived through it. The story is narrated by the daughter. She supports her unemployed Communist Party adherent father. He values hard work, but she does work. She wants to have a normal teenage life and seeks refuge in a relationship with a non-Jewish boy of more centrist political leanings whose family is building a bomb shelter. Family normalcy is a relative affair. His parents have marital troubles and the bomb shelter is an alternative place to live. In the end, the daughter realizes blood is thicker than water and forgoes her teenage flame to rally to the defense of her arrested father. The paragraph at the beginning of this review, is the opening paragraph to this well told story.

“A Difficult Place” takes place in Israel, but it about relationships. What we want, or need, from our lives can be an endless pursuit, and not a coming of age. The principal character is a failed female journalist who cannot choose between career and a supportive relationship with a widower with a teenage daughter who also has yet to find herself.

“The Unknown Soldier” is another McCarthy Red Scare period piece. It is sadly comical. An actor trying to find work adopts an image of a foreign-born Communist. He performs it so well, onstage and off, that he is sent to jail. His marriage is destroyed, but upon release a year later, he has a weekend with his son who continues to adore him. It is a lovely father-son tale.

“Retrospective” is the last story. It is an emotional story about failed marriages. It has an Israeli connection, but is unfortunately failed relationships are universal.

The title for this collection,”the UnAmericans” is perplexing. It may refer to those deemed “unAmericans” by the Senator from Wisconsin. Most of the stories do not specially relate to being Americans or immigrants or emigres to the United States. Some characters do, and the 1950s and early 1960s are the time periods for a number of stories, but the themes transcend this.

This is a book well worth reading. Ms. Antopol is a good writer. She is working on a novel and I look forward to reading it. I do not believe a collection of short stories can be compared with a novel, as much as I like both forms. It is not that a novel is better. Comparing one form to the other for the purpose of choosing the National Book Award is ridiculous. It may make short stories more marketable, and in that there is value. Nonetheless, it would be best just to nominate both and not choose a winner. I don’t think this collection of stories will be the recipient of the Award, but it sets Ms. Antopol on the path to receiving one.

Dictation

Tags

, , , , ,

The title of Cynthia Ozick’s collection of four short stories is taken from the first story. The stories share a theme of deception. “Dictation”, the first story, is about the chance meeting of secretaries of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. The more senior and well-established James’ invites Conrad to his home to discuss literature and his liberated amanuensis (aka secretary) takes Mr. Conrad’s shy, restrained and admiring employee under her wing. Mr James’ secretary is convinced that the secretaries know the man and author and are better qualified as editors than those men who serve as such. With a desire to achieve what limited recognition is possible at the time, they plot to edit their bosses’ works by transposing language from one author’s manuscript into the others when consistent with the narratives. The point being that with the invention of the typewriter the authors’ became so dependent upon their secretaries that they would not, and did not, recognize the deception.

The second story, “Actors”, stars Matt Sorley (Mose Sadacca), a mostly unemployed, difficult and aging actor whose self-importance rises above the secondary roles that he is occasionally given. His wife, a former actress with more talent, supports them with work outside of theatre. A director who would offer Mr. Sorley non-lead roles on occasion tells him that a young director is interested in having him play King Lear in a new production. It is “modern” theatre. It would be a revival of a Yiddish theatre version of the work based on an unfinished play of a daughter of Eli Miller, an equally self-important Yiddish theatre actor of the time, now in a home. The deception is that Mr. Sorley transforms himself into Mr. Miller’s vision of the work, only to be upstaged.

“At Fumicaro” is the third story of deception. The theme is self-deception on a personal and universal scale. In short it is about religious piety. The venue is a conference of Catholics at Fumicaro, Italy, where the Frank Castle, a temporarily celibate critic and journalist was returning to give a presentation. He happens upon a young chambermaid who it ill in the bathroom at the hotel at which he is staying. Her only English is “No belief” and he does not speak Italian. She is an innocent, apart from having been just raped by her mother’s cobbler boyfriend. She prays to Jesus wherever she finds him. Mr. Castle pours his pent-up emotions into this vessel, by sleeping with her, marrying her and taking her back to New York City. He imagines and realizes the ridicule of his social class from marrying this uneducated pregnant child. He ignores it, finding belief in her.

The last story, “What Happened to the Baby” is a choir of deception. The narrator is the faux niece of here mother’s cousin. Her always impoverished “uncle” was the inventor of “GNU” a universal language that was to displace Esperanto. Her uncle’s skill was sleeping with female believers. The name GNU came from the first sounds of his dead child. The child’s death may have resulted from his delay in finding a doctor while he slept with the mother of Esperanto while is wife was nursing her sick child and their own. The niece, supplants her con artist mother in supporting Uncle Simon, while trying to learn the family history from her divorced “aunt” Essie. Essie is a mistress of deception.

Ms. Ozick’s stories are good stories, but I was not emotionally or intellectually attached to them. I thought the idea in “Dictation” was interesting, but its conclusion was flat. A Pulitzer Prize and Mann Booker prize finalist, her writing is well-respected. These stories, although worth reading, may not be up to the level of her other work. Descriptive of character, but for me, lacking feeling for them.

A Tale For The Time Being

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

This unassuming novel is a tour de force. It was short listed for the 2013 Booker Prize. I read and reviewed two other 2013 Booker short listed novels. “Harvest” is an extraordinary novel. I assumed it would win the prize, as it captured medieval England with beautiful prose. In contrast, “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki is plainly written. I also read “The Testament of Mary”. It has an imaginative plot. “A Tale for the Time Being” does not have an imaginative plot. I intend to read most of the other 2013 short listed Booker novels, although I am not sure I can wade into “The Luminaries”, which one the prize. At this point I think “A Tale for the Time Being” should have won the prize, with “Harvest” being a close second. As it is hard to compare books, I recommend you read all three of these novels.

The story in “A Tale for the Time Being” is simply told by two narrators. One a teenage Japanese girl who has emigrated back to Japan from the U.S. after her father lost his job in Silicon Valley. The girl is ostracized and bullied by her Japanese peer group and teacher. The father is unemployed. Both are suicidal, with her father being practiced. The girl and father are saved by the girl’s 104 year old Zen Buddhist nun grandmother.

The other narrator is a married female writer of middle-aged who is childless. A child of Japanese parents she moved to the Pacific Northwest from New York City to live with her introverted naturalist husband. Despite, or because of his intellectual foibles, he is the philosophical equivalent of the nun. A few years after Fukushima tsunami a diary and some letters wash up on shore. The diary is of a young Japanese girl who is on the verge of suicide. The letters are in French and need translation.

The story unfolds a few years apart in Japan and in Canada as the diary and letters are slowly read. The author is interested in parallel time and universe, and its one weakness in my view, is the animistic employment of a crow to join them. The novel is subtle learning experience. Japanese vocabulary is taught. It is written and defined in footnotes, and then used without footnotes as the novel progresses. Lessons in Japanese culture, Zen Buddhism, botany, philosophy, quantum mechanics, etymology, and history are all absorbed osmotically.

The title of the book is a double entendre. The “Time Being” is the living. A theme of the book is suicide and life, two sides of the same coin. The book celebrates living for the moment, as it explores suicidal variations. It juxtaposes kamikaze pilots with 9/11.

My favorite literary reference in the book concerns the history of the medlar, an applelike fruit which is best eaten rotten despite its awful smell. Apparently in Elizabethan England it was called open-arse fruit. The French called it cul de chien, or dog’s asshole. The novel notes that it plays a part in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

“If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark,
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.”

As Ms. Ozeki points out Mercutio is having fun with Romeo for not getting it on with Juliet.

This is an immensely enjoyable book. I would recommend it with caution to young adults in high school. I am concerned that those who have been bullied and are suicidal might find it too close to home. Some schools might also object to some passing adolescent prostitution.

Adults will spend their time wisely by reading this book.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 133 other followers