Category Archives: Great Books

Jose Saramago Exposes the Heart of Death

Yesterday I read Death with Interruptions (published in 2008) by Jose Saramago.  Saramago is a marvel of a writer, genuine and original and beautiful.  This book  begins with the statement that “The following day, no one died.”  And so it continues for seven months in this unnamed country: within the borders of this chosen nation, no one dies.  At first people are overjoyed, life everlasting, how wonderful!  Only the catholic church (Saramago uses lower-case letters) laments, knowing that without the question of  eternal life, no one will need religion anymore: no need for salvation when there is no death.

Saramago is a genius with words and phrases, and he uses them generously in this book.  Long dialogues go on for pages with no clear delineation of who is talking and yet the conversations are very clear.  Pages and pages of description wrap us in the problems engulfing the country: geometrically expanding populations of those who should be dead filling resting homes and taking over lives of caretakers; patients who won’t die overcrowding hospitals and no bodies arriving at the funeral homes; a few intrepid poor folk starting an epidemic of border-crossing to allow their sick to die, a kind of assisted suicide; and the formation of a “maphia” (to distinguish themselves from the “mafia”) to deal with the growing but indecent needs of population control.

The book is funny at times and profound at times, but it only really gets good when we meet up with some real characters, instead of being treated to titles like the prime minister, the cardinal, the minister of the interior, the director of television, and the apprentice philosopher.  Although we still are not given proper names, in the final third of the book we get to know quite well both death (again, Saramago’s lower-case delineation) and her beloved, the cello player. Death becomes a very real woman, for us and for the cellist.  Death’s difficulties in delivering the death blow (by letter) are both funny and moving, and surprisingly human.  In the end, it is humanity that governs who lives and dies, and how.

Why a cellist?  What is it about the cello that is so seductive?  The music that comes from a cello is of course very deep and resonant, not unlike an immense drum that is struck with great power and sends such chills of recognition down the spine and inside the body and mind.  But with the cello the power is completely auditory, not the physicality of the sound-waves but something very subtle and yet very precise, a sure stroking of our most tightly held emotions.  I wrote a book in which a very nice but confused woman completely loses herself to a cellist; the cellist in Death With Interruptions is a much better soul, all in all, and yet just as powerful a seducer.

Death with Interruptions was translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

Homeless and Heading South: A Sun for the Dying

Yesterday I read A Sun for the Dying (published 2008) by Jean-Claude Izzo.  This novel tells the harrowing story of homelessness in France.  The story of middle-aged but already ancient Rico is told without sentimentality or horror, beyond the obvious horror of living without money or a home or any security at all. Rico is living in a Paris that is without romance or warmth, as demonstrated by the opening scene in which a homeless man dies alone and unnoticed in the metro stop of Menilmontant. (This neighborhood of Menilmontant was the setting for the beautiful 1956 movie, “The Red Balloon”; it was then and is now a working-class neighborhood).

The homeless people in this book range from the young (an Algerian kid burned to disfigurement by the steamer ship he stowed away on) to the middle-aged because no one makes it to old age when they are homeless. Some of the people are criminals but most are not; some are alcoholics and drug addicts and some weren’t before becoming homeless but are now because it is the easiest way to forget the misery.  Winter is coming and the cold and the damp are seeping in.  Rico knows that he is dying and he decides to return to Marseilles, where he is sure to find the sun.  He was happy once in Marseilles and wants to die there.

Through flashbacks and remembrances and changes in point of view, we discover the history of Rico and how he became homeless.  The plot moves back and forth, from happier times in Marseilles to the present time in Paris and the years in between. I wanted Rico to make it back to Marseilles in time, back to the lighthouse. I wanted him to be able to sit against its hard but warmed stone and look out over the huge, glittering expanse of the Mediterranean.

Izzo writes in short prose that catches both the harshness of Rico’s reality and the abrasive and fragmented quality of Rico’s thoughts.  Izzo’s staccato prose is also effective at capturing the briefness and intensity of those moments when Rico finds beauty and connection, and his interludes of escape from the truth that “we are nothing.”

There are no stereotypes in the novel, just realistic portrayals of what happens when fate twists horribly against you.  Despite the conditions to which they have been reduced, the characters in A Sun for the Dying are achingly human in their elastic and persevering desires, even when the desire is just to die in the sun.

Speaking of desire, there is an awful (and I use that word deliberately) lot of sexual desire in the book, although Rico is always claiming he is no longer interested.   He is fixated on his ex-wife’s behind and all he was allowed to enjoy there, and he rants on about how much he misses that special place.  In the end his ranting desire leads to violence, and it is not surprising.  Most of the sex in the book reeks of violence and violation and deceit, and women are not portrayed with any great affection (other than Rico’s first love, who is the only woman in the book who is neither whore nor hellion).

A Sun for the Dying was translated by Howard Curtis.

The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald

Yesterday I read The Emigrants (published in 1996) by W.G. Sebald.   Sebald tells us the stories of four men, all emigrants from Germany, two from Germany to England (one first from Lithuania to Germany and then  on to England), one went to France, and one came all the way to America.

Using artifacts such as photographs, journals, letters, and notes of his own imagined visits with the men, and embedding the facts within fiction, Sebald presents compelling stories and histories (how much is true, how much is not, we don’t know) of alienation and survival.

Through Sebald’s descriptions of devasted places and people, I felt overwhelmed by human history, by the realization – a profound and scary realization — of how many millions of people have lived and experienced daily adventures and trivial happenings, and misery.  We all experience misery.  We see the evidence of misery in in Sebald’s abandoned factories and warehouses and fields, in boarded up homes and decrepit hotels, and in long canals built for huge ships where no ships venture any more.  At one time in history, there was life, abundant and hopeful, in these now abandoned places; Sebald tells us the story of both the then and the now, of the beauty and of the misery.  Both exist, at different points in time, and humans and the landscape reflect the existence of both states of being.

Sebald writes of visits throughout the world, as he imagines tracking down the lives of the four emigrants.  Each man is very different but they share the same alienation: three of the men lost their sense of identity as a German, either through force or choice,  through the horrors of World War Two, and one lost his identity through sublimating his will to that of his employer.  All struggle to forge a new existence and identity in their new land; two finally choose suicide, another chooses to annihiliate himself through electroshock therapy, and a third is saved only by painting in an abandoned warehouse, the dust of which will eventually kill him through its toxicity.

This is not a happy book with its landscapes of abandonment and the personal histories of loss and alienation and a kind of dismemberment (torn from their country of identification). And yet the book is not miserable or pessimistic.  Ultimately, it is a portrayal of what humans do: they survive.  They are not happy all day long, ever, but they can and they do survive.  It is a characteristic of Americans to think that happiness is a birthright; perhaps Sebald is more realistic in his belief that this is not true.  The gift of life is existence itself; you get to be alive, for a brief time in history, and you do what you can to find what you can in your alloted time.  Connections are made and art is created and adventures are pursued, and all this to prove to ourselves that we are alive.

Sebald writes in long sentences, longer than any I have ever written, and sometimes they are hard to follow.  But this just plunged me deeper into the mind of Sebald; I was thinking along with him, observing along with him, and experiencing dreams of his (although I hate dream sequences in books unless summed up in five lines or less; this goes for dreams in books as well as those related to me by friends or family. And strangers for that matter).  I became as enthralled as Sebald was with the portrayed emigrants, caught by his brutally truthful and yet largely imagined portrayals of their lives far away from Germany.

The Emigrants was translated by Michael Hulse.

Finding a Reason to Live in The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is a great book.  This beautiful, moving, and occasionally very funny novel tells the story of an amazing woman and a startling young girl, and their parallel and eventually joined paths to recognition of beauty, in the self and in the world.

Renee is the concierge of a very upscale building in Paris, a supremely intelligent and grammatically exacting woman, and Paloma is one of her tenants, a 12-year old girl already fed up with the falseness of the adults around her and doubtful about life’s possibilities. Renee is acutely aware and appreciative of life’s moments of beauty and yet is unable to grasp the absolute beauty within herself.  Paloma is a French, intelligent, and female prepubescent version of Holden Caulfield, a confused and disillusioned but still young and therefore reachable rebel.  Her thoughts are presented to us through her two thoroughly engaging and at times heartbreaking journals; from Renee we get her inner thoughts and observations through first person narration.

This book is about finding a reason to live but it is absolutely un-American in its prescription: there is no easy path, life is full of difficulties, and you are on your own.  But if you are honest and intelligent and exacting, you will find and appreciate the beauty that exists in relationships and music and nature and books.  The book is about the pure beauty that is possible in moments of genuine expression, the fleeting moments that can still last forever in our minds because of their beauty and truth.

If we are lucky, many such moments occur in our lives and we are mindful enough to grasp the beauty.  One rainy afternoon I spent in a Barcelona Art Museum over twenty-five years ago, I was stopped short by a painting. I will always remember the beauty of that painting (although I can remember neither author nor title), and the painting has its same power to bring peace to me now as it did then.  It is a simple landscape of a dawning sky over a dark hillside, with a hermit just coming out of his cave in the hill.  Apricot-orange lines had been painted in beyond the darkened hermit and his burrow to show the dawning of day;  looking at the painting I felt the thawing wind of spring, the precious beat of living, the gratitude for another day granted.  Memories of mornings I’d spent in the country entwined with the experience of seeing the painting, creating layers of time to be stored and later savored.  The moment of seeing that painting and the moments of experiencing what was presented in that painting are moments that, when brought back by remembering, have sustained and comforted me.

Renee is also aware of the threaded memories of life, and of the beauty that endures to sustain and inspire us to continue on with the sometimes heavy burden of living; she tries to pass that knowledge to Paloma, not through lessons or lectures, but through sharing of ideas and thoughts.  It is the joy of conversation, of realizing a shared observation or enthusiasm or dis-enthusiasm, that brings Paloma around to a new commitment to living, even when faced very suddenly with death.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog offers us Renee’s beautiful but thoroughly realistic appraisal of life. When she herself must re-examine what she thought she knew about herself, the forced examination does not undercut her appraisal but serves to support it even more: we understand, as she does, that by living fully observant and appreciative of the beauty that appears fleetingly in actual time but permanently in our minds, we can survive and surpass the mundane and trivial and superficial.  We can make connections and stave off alienation; each moment caught by our flourishing minds only makes all the moments to come better and better. Young Paloma commits herself to finding those “moments of always within never” as a reason to live and that reason is good enough for me.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was translated by Alison Anderson.