Category Archives: Novels

Coetzee: The Master of the Novel

J.M. Coetzee tortures his characters psychologically and physically and The Master of Petersburg (published in 1995) is no exception.   In 1869 the stepson of Fyodor Dostoevsky came to St. Petersburg to mourn for his dead stepson.  He encounters his son’s landlord and her daughter, the revolutionaries with whom his son had been consorting, and the police who are investigating the death of his son as well as the revolutionaries.  He also encounters the overwhelming character of Russia herself, in all her stormy misery.

Dostoevsky’s grief for his son dominates the first third of the novel and is beautifully and painfully wrought.  In fact, his writing in this novel presents the most accurate portrayal of grief that I have read, based on my own grim experience of what it is like to lose someone. There are many exquisite (in both pain and beauty)  passages about what it is we are actually mourning when we grieve, and the physical sensations we feel.

There is one passage that I found particularly real and profound.  What I most wanted to shield my sister from was the knowledge of certain death, once it became certain.  Coetzee understands this and explains in The Master of Petersburg:

“What he cannot bear is the thought that, for the last fraction of the last instant of his fall, Pavel knew that nothing could save him, that he was dead.  He wants to believe Pavel was protected from that certainty, more terrible than annihilation itself, by the hurry and confusion of the fall, by the mind’s way of etherizing itself against whatever is too enormous to be borne….It is from knowing that he is dead that he wants to protect his son.  As long as I live, he thinks, let me be the one who knows!  By whatever act of will it takes, let me be the thinking animal plunging through the air.”

The rest of the novel documents Dostoevsky’s search for understanding why the city and the country still have such a hold over him, and the hold it had over his son.  There is a loss of control, both physical and mental, as the forty-nine year old author (Dostoevsky, not Coetzee, but are they the same?) struggles to understand; he fights to regain command over his desires and his knowledge and to fulfill his duty to his stepson and to Russia.

It struck me as I read this book that Coetzee is like a South African version of John Updike, in how he documents the relationships between men and women: all is defined in terms of the sexual and the physical, and women are not portrayed as possessing any real knowledge other than that innately held as women. And yet I like Coetzee, much more than I like Updike.  Certainly his novel Elizabeth Costello does not follow the critique I offer just above, as the main character is an intelligent and very thoughtful and thought provoking woman.  But she is not quite real; she is a twisting together and a morphing of Coetzee’s usual portrayals of men and women into the body of one character.

Edith Wharton’s Touchstone

Yesterday I read The Touchstone (published in 1900) by Edith Wharton. What does touchstone mean?  I thought it meant a personal marker, a reminder of who you are. I looked it up and found that it meant “a test or a criterion for determining the quality of a thing” or “a fundamental or quintessential part or feature.”  So it can be a reminder of who you are:  in life you will sometimes face a situation that requires you to act on your own, using your own judgment, and how you behave in that situation, either for good or for bad, reveals the truth of who you are.

In this wonderful early novel, Edith Wharton presents the case of a young man who faces a test of what kind of man he is.  The outcome of that test and is exquisitely portrayed in all its nuances, its contradictions of pleasure and pain, and the difficulties and differences between private and public knowledge of the man’s character in the face of his situation.

Edith Wharton writes beautifully.  She creates each person of her novel with precise prose, illuminating metaphors, and humor; they are elucidated through commonplace situations as well as tragedy, making them very real, alive and breathing and thinking people. The four pivotal players are Glennard, our man whose character is on the line; his wife; his former lover whose letters he possesses and whose posthumous fame have made them quite valuable; and the friend who assists Glennard in his profiting from the letters.  All the characters fit together like pieces of a puzzle to give a breathtaking portrait of Glennard’s morality and of his painful spiral through recognition that he has failed morally and acceptance that he is not what he thought himself to be.

Edith Wharton is not telling a conventional moral tale. Glennard fails to pass the test of character and yet he flourishes nonetheless, marrying the woman he dreams of marrying and living the life he imagined for himself always in his perfect suburban house (notice the baby who “never cries” — Wharton is so funny):

“The little house seemed no more than a gay tent pitched against the sunshine.  It had the crispness of a freshly starched summer gown and the geraniums on the veranda bloomed as simultaneously as the flowers in a bonnet.  The garden was prospering absurdly.  Seed they had sown at random – amid laughing counter-charges of incompetence – had shot up in fragrant defiance of their blunders.  He smiled to see the clematis unfolding its punctual wings about the porch.  The tiny lawn was smooth as a shaven cheek, and a crimson rambles mounted to the nursery window of a baby who never cried.  A breeze shook the awning above the tea table, and his wife, as he drew near, could be seen bending above a kettle that was just about to boil.  So vividly did the whole scene suggest the painted bliss of a stage setting that it would have been hardly surprising to see her step forward among the flowers and trill out her virtuous happiness from the veranda rail.”

Outwardly Glennard has profited but he still he suffers, primarily because he knows he is not the man he thought he was. Through Glennard, Wharton is warning us that although we may not consider ourselves capable of great heroism, we never question that we are incapable of the opposite; we believe we will not stoop to acts of baseness or cowardice or avarice when faced with a tough situation but when the shit hits the fan, we very well might:

“It was from the unexpected discovery of his pettiness that he chiefly suffered.  Our self-esteem is apt to be based on the hypothetical great act we have never had occasion to perform; and even the most self-scrutinizing modesty credits itself negatively with a high standard of conduct.  Glennard had never thought himself a hero; but he had ben certain he was incapable of baseness.  We all like our wrong-doings to have a becoming cut, to be made to order, as it were; and Glennard found himself suddenly thrust into a garb of dishonour surely meant for a meaner figure.”

Wharton also explores the differences between public and private knowledge: in other words, if I can keep my inadequacies and failures to myself, will I suffer less than if the public knows what I truly am capable (or incapable) of?  Wharton suggests that the suffering is different, but not less.

When Glennard laments that he has gained so much from his former lover and yet he never gave her anything, his wife replies that he did give her something, he gave her “the happiness of giving.”  Irony?  No, the truth is that it is easier, morally, to give than to receive.  In receiving there is a debt owed, a moral contract of behavior. In giving, there is only the honor of having offered and delivered the gift.  But in life we have to do both, give and receive, and in this truly wonderful novel, Wharton asks what are standards, both public and private, that humans should meet in the give and take of life.

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.

One Crazy Week of Days

Yesterday I read The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, written in 1908.  This is a crazy book about a policeman seeking to stop an anarchist cell from murdering the Russian Czar and setting off the overthrow of government and civilized life everywhere.  The symbolism is deeply religious and the fight clearly drawn between conservatism and liberalism (the good guys are the conservatives).  And yet the book is completely readable and entertaining and thought-provoking because Chesterton writes well. He mixes great deadpan humor with absolute slapstick and throws in plenty of pondering about meaning of life and other heavy stuff. He also has enough plot twists to make a reader dizzy; perhaps he tries to use the dizziness to scare us away from the anarchy he reviles.

We have to remember that in the time when Chesterton wrote anarchists were very visible and active, having recently killed Czar Alexander II of Russia, the empress Elizabeth of Austria, President Sadi Carnot of France, the prime minister of Spain, and King Umberto I of Italy.  Anarchy was not living in a crummy house and going through trash for food; it was violent overthrow of governments, what we today call terrorism.  Taking the book from its placement in a pre-car, pre-phone, pre-World War history and reading it from a post 9/11 viewpoint, turns it into a pretty scary book.  Does the parallel continue to work when we consider how Chesterton portrays the fighters against anarchy? They are intelligent enough on their own but bumbling fools when they are together.  You decide if the novel reflects our times and the “fight against terrorism.”

Chesterton is known today for his maxims and the book is full of great quotes.  For example,  Through all this his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally.  It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two.  But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.  That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy. Now that is true, very true, but also really funny.  And even more true and funny when you have one child and then decide to have another one: you do not then have two children, you literally have two thousand times the laundry, the food on the floor, the trips to the grocery store, and the minutes it takes for bedtime to finally arrive.

But Chesterton is not interested in children: he is interested in souls and the saving of them from the perils of chaos. He makes a good argument for the fight against anarchy (and terrorists) by writing a truly anarchic (crazy) book.

Love Letters: A Celibate Season

Yesterday I read A Celibate Season (published 2000) by Carol Shields (Republic of Love) and Blanche Howard, an epistolary tale of caution against spending too much time away from your spouse.  In the novel, a married couple with 2 teenage kids spend ten months apart with the whole of Canada between them; communicating almost wholly by letter they deal with financial strain, in-law angst, temptations, desires, and personal ambition.

This book is really funny and provoking.  It raises issues about the durability of marriage, now versus in previous generations; the pain of separation and the excitement of novelty; the desire for companionship and, ultimately, sex; and the need for connections of any kind as a buffer against loneliness.

The letters pass between husband and wife.  I won’t reveal whose side I was on in the marital battle than ensues.  I’ll leave it to you, readers, to decide which spouse was the more honorable during the separation.  Read the book and let me know what you think!

Despite A Celibate Season‘s basic hilarity,  there are some moments of genuine gravity, beautifully captured,  as quoted here:

“And if anyone were to ask him what is the meaning of life…he would have to say that it is bringing into consciousness those ancient and
primitive stirrings that are the building blocks of creativity.  By doing so one gradually realizes the self, and that is the purpose of life.”

This view of the meaning of the life,  to find oneself through one’s own internal ability to create, is very different from The Elegance of the Hedgehog,where it is the observation of beauty and the capturing of moments of beauty for internal safekeeping — an outward turning for inner sustenance — that is the meaning of life.  And we can contrast it again to The Emigrants where the meaning of life is life itself, our purpose being the span of our lifetime  within the gigantic history of mankind.

Dickens Does It Better: The Good Thief

Yesterday I read The Good Thief (published 2008) by Hannah Tinti. The story here is a tale to be told around a campfire, a New England fairy tale with orphans and a dwarf and a giant, betrayed lovers and vengeful brothers.  The story is fantastic (unbelievable) as are the characters in the story.  Ren, the one-handed, orphan hero is a re-imagined Pip but with none of Pip’s deeper humanity.  Ren is a character, not a real person; he is engaging and good and honorable, like Pip, but the reader is given no sense of his emotions or contradictory impulses through the very tumultuous ups and downs of this tale.

The Good Thief moves fast, never slowing down, always speeding up and twisting around, becoming even more unbelievable with every turn. Despite, or maybe because of, the constant propelling movement, I was not moved or engaged by this book.  The story is a good one but I need time to think and breathe and feel when I am reading and Hannah Tinti allows no time for that.  The story is rushed and flurried and in the end, rather insubstantial.

I read the book quickly, sucked it up like a milkshake but at the end I was unsatisfied.  For a great story about an orphan and his adventures, read Great Expectations or David Copperfield.  No one does it better than Dickens.

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.

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.