Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

I rarely recommend any product I haven’t used or read, but I’m making an exception in the case of the new e-book The Hall of Nearly Great because it includes so many great writers, telling the stories of good big leaguers who were never good enough to earn legitimate Hall of Fame consideration. (I do have a copy of the book, but haven’t started it yet.) It’s available now for just $12 through that link.

I wrote yesterday about improved and declining farm systems for Insiders.

Anita Loos’ 1925 comic novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is best remembered now for Howard Hawks’ movie adaptation, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, but at the time of its release it was an enormous best-seller, second only to John Erskine’s The Private Life of Helen of Troy among novels published in the U.S. that year. Loos’ book, a scant 120 pages, is now typically sold with its sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, a weaker sibling that doesn’t have the same high or low comedy of the first book.

The blonde in question is the shameless gold-digger Lorelei, who narrates the novel in diary form, detailing her exploits in convincing various witless suitors into buying her expensive meals, clothes, and jewelry, while also taking her from California to New York to London and across Europe. What Lorelei lacks in brains she makes up for in cunning, manipulating multiple men simultaneously without any remorse for the way she leads them on and leaves them once she finds a better offer. She’s accompanied by her sarcastic friend Dorothy, whose lack of decorum and interest in men without money confuse and aggravate Lorelei, whose only end seems to be having a good time through someone else’s wallet. For the time, Lorelei’s casual attitudes towards love, sex, and money, as well as a disinterest in then-traditional female roles of doting wife and mother – even when she settles on one man at the end of the novel, it’s more about what he can do for her budding career than about love or family.

The book is extremely funny between Lorelei’s own observations and the occasional cutting line from Dorothy; Lorelei is always talking about “educating” herself by reading, yet confesses that she and Dorothy “do not seem to be mathematical enough to tell how much francs is in money.” She says her friends told her she had talent for music, but “I mean I simply could not sit for hours and hours at a time practising just for the sake of a career.” (Spelling errors are rampant throughout her diaries, accelerating once she and Dorothy reach Paris.) And because she’s beautiful and, presumably, because she’s blond, men fall all over themselves to buy her affections – in a rare turn of events, it’s a book where the thinly-drawn characters are males, a sort of anti-Sorkinism that had to be even more unusual in the ’20s.

But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes doesn’t live up to its predecessor’s humor, as Lorelei only appears as the narrator of Dorothy’s life story, from a very rough upbringing to her eventual pursuit of a wealthy New York scion whose mother rather thoroughly disapproves of the match, setting various schemes in motion to save her son from a disastrous marrage. The narrative is more traditional, but aside from the slapstick nature of Dorothy and her beau chasing each other while her would-be mother-in-law interferes, it lacks the farcical nature of the first book, in part because Dorothy is no longer the wise-cracking observer but is enmeshed in the plot. It’s as short as the Blondes, though, and with the original illustrations by Ralph Barton taking up a number of pages, you could probably knock off the pair of novels in three hours or so.

Next up: I’ve finished Mario Livio’s The Golden Ratio (about the irrational number φ) and moved on to Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America.

The Tin Drum.

In case you missed it, I did a redraft of the first round of the 2002 Rule 4 draft for ESPN.com yesterday.

Günter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum stands for critics as one of the greatest novels in German literature, ranking 39th on The Novel 100, 70th on the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels ever written, and ranking fifth on this list of the best German novels of last century. Reading it for leisure doesn’t quite measure up to reading it as literature, and I believe a good number of allusions flew over my head due to my unfamiliarity with German (and Polish) history, but I hope I can recognize a novel’s greatness even if I wouldn’t say I loved reading it.

The drum of the title refers to a toy drum received by the narrator and main character, Oskar, for his third birthday. Oskar, precocious, cynical, and perhaps delusional, claims his personality was fully developed at birth, and at the age of three he stages an accident to prevent himself from growing physically, giving him an unusual vantage point for seeing and fooling the world, as he can play the innocent child to escape from mortal danger (even as he sends others, including both of the men he suspects of being his biological father, to their deaths), and uses that ruse to survive the German invasion of his hometown of Danzig/Gdansk, the assault on the Polish Post Office, Kristallnacht, World War II, and its immediate aftermath.

Oskar is mischievous, often devious, and has a strong instinct for self-preservation that he executes with one of his two great skills, using his voice to shatter glass, often to get what he wants but sometimes merely for the pleasure of destroying (although he might actually view it as creating, as a form of art). His other skill is to communicate via his drum: By playing the instrument, he can tell extensive stories and communicate his desires even before he’s able to speak – and he can pretend that he’s unable to speak for years beyond the point when he’s learned to do so.

Aside from the rampant symbolism – the drum, art, glass, aromas (Oskar has a hypersensitive sense of smell), Oskar’s obsession with his heritage despite its lack of clarity, and more – the brilliance of The Tin Drum is its use of humor and picaresque elements to lampoon Naziism, the church (and its complicity with the regime), and the willingness of so many Germans to go along with the regime. The book is sometimes crude and bawdy, but it’s in the service of dark, biting humor that tears apart Grass’s targets, such as the Nazi soldiers rotely building a wall and entombing small animals in it. You may often wish to avert your eyes (the horse’s head scene comes to mind), but these passages tend to be the book’s most powerful both on initial reading and after the book is done.

That said, it’s a tough read for two major reasons. One is simply that German syntax, even in this new, improved translation, doesn’t read that well to my English-reared mind. The other is that Oskar rambles, leading me to question whether he’s all there mentally or might even be unreliable as a narrator, producing long passages where nothing happens and I felt like I was reading in circles. The lengthy gaps between passages of action, or humor, or even dialogue, made it a tough slog, especially the final 100-150 pages – ordinarily a time of acceleration as the plot nears its conclusion. With The Tin Drum more of a history of a fictional character than a traditional linear narrative, there are no major plot points to resolve, and Oskar only undergoes one significant (albeit very significant) transformation in the book. It’s a cerebral novel where Oskar has some realizations but generally refuses to grow up, drawing not just from the picaresque tradition but from coming-of-age novels as well.

Next up: Alan Bradley’s second Flavia de Luce novel, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I’ve been busy over at ESPN.com, including pieces on Chris Carpenter going to Boston and the A.J. Burnett trade, plus draft blog posts on Mark Appel, Kenny Diekroger, and Stephen Piscotty; and Luc Giolito and Max Fried.

I’d never read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas before last week primarily because I was always under the mistaken impression that it was a work of non-fiction, a magazine article or series of them expanded to book length. I’m sure most of you know that that impression was wrong, as it’s a novel, inspired by actual events and probably by actual drugs, but largely the product of Thompson’s expansive imagination and, in his own words, a “fantasy.”

The novel is often categorized as one of the earliest examples of “Gonzo journalism,” where the writer involves himself in the event or feature he’s covering. (In a related story, I’ll be throwing the sixth inning for the Rangers on Friday.) Thompson (as “Raoul Duke”) and his lawyer (“Dr. Gonzo”) scam their way through two dubious assignments in Las Vegas, one covering the Mint 400 off-road race, the other covering a conference of district attorneys to discuss the scourge of recreational drugs. They never even see the race beyond the starting pistol, spending more time running around Vegas getting into trouble, while their involvement in the Drug Conference is largely limited to scaring the crap out of a rural DA whose district hasn’t yet seen much action. Most of the novel is about these guys ingesting various substances and acting under their influence with often hilarious results.

I’m of two minds about the book. As a comic novel, a satire, or merely a piece of entertainment, it’s brilliant. The book reads like an unending con job, an Ocean’s 11 for people who are OK with having their fictional con men look like actual crooks. These two knuckleheads trash rental cars and hotel rooms, charge everything to their hotel accounts, and consume absurd quantities of drugs, taking one drug to ease the effect of coming down off another, and drinking heavily all the while. (Which makes me wonder how anyone could think this was all true. If Thompson survived ingesting all of these chemicals, would he actually remember anything that what happened afterwards?) A maid sees something she probably shouldn’t, so Thompson/Duke cooks up a scam on the spot threatening her with arrest, then turning her into an informant, which the gullible woman buys wholesale because she’s as greedy as the next American.

Where it lost me slightly was in its social commentary aspect, which probably just went past me as someone who was born two years after the book was published. The novel’s subtitle, “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” sets out up front that said journey isn’t going to be pretty, and it seems like Thompson’s intent was to put the lie to the common notion of the American Dream. In probably the funniest passage in the book, these two drug-addled idiots seek out “the American Dream” and are directing to a bar by that name, only to find that it burned down a few years earlier, the sort of symbolism that threatens to jump off the page and slap you in the face. (Your symbolism meter might break with all of the novel’s references to sharks and, eventually, to a car the characters nickname the “great white whale.”) They infiltrate the Drug Conference, already high, while privately mocking how far behind the times the attorneys and cops are, yet also realizing that the halcyon days of recreational drug use are over, losing its proponents to Vietnam, capitalism, and the effects of excessive consumption. But since the book’s publication, we’ve seen two economic booms (and busts), a growing wealth gap, massive changes in societal attitudes towards drugs, and a pretty big image overhaul for Vegas itself. The book’s humor remains, but I think the immediacy of its message has faded with time. Or perhaps I’m just sufficiently jaded that the book couldn’t have the same impact on me that it might have fifteen or twenty years ago.

Next up: I’m about two-thirds of the way through Wilkie Collins’ 1868 novel The Moonstone, regarded as the first detective novel, praised by writers from T.S. Eliot to G.K. Chesterton to Dorothy Sayers.

The Baron in the Trees.

I want to thank all of you who’ve reached out via one medium or another to offer your prayers, positive thoughts, or best wishes on my upcoming thyroid surgery (one week from today). It’s supposed to be routine, but I admit I’m having a hard time thinking of it as such.

Yesterday’s chat was abbreviated, but I tried to plow through as many questions as I could in that short time.

I was introduced to the Italian novelist/fabulist Italo Calvino in college, in that “Comedy and the Novel” course (taught by the now-retired Prof. Donald Fanger) that also brought me to The Master & Margarita and The Charterhouse of Parma, among other titles. I’ve read other Calvino works, including Inscrutable Invisible Cities, but it wasn’t until I tackled The Baron In The Trees that I found something that lived up to the standard of the first novel of his that I’d read.

The Baron in the Trees is a fable, built on a plausible-but-not-really premise about a young man named Cosimo who, after a squabble with his sister that leaves him on the wrong side of the ledger with his parents, decides to climb one of the many trees on his family’s estate … and never comes down. He adapts to life in the trees, learning to navigate them all over their Ligurian village, ignoring property lines while, Omar Little-style, developing his own code of behavior and straddling the lines between outlaw and vigilante, and between folk hero and village idiot. He falls in love, develops da Vinci-like contraptions, crafts a philosophy (and sends it to Diderot), fights battles, meets Napoleon, and becomes a topic of discussion in the great salons of Europe.

While it’s not quite as imaginative as If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, one of the best and funniest novels I’ve ever read, The Baron in the Trees contains a more straightforward narrative and doesn’t lack for humor. Cosimo (who becomes a baron after his father dies) sees the world differently, figuratively and literally, from his new vantage point, and necessities like food and hygiene force him to conceive new and unusual solutions to keep himself in the trees. He can also better understand the consequences of his actions, such as his response to the discovery of a traitor amongst his father’s retinue, and the development of his philosophy, while obviously satirizing some of the political philosophers of the late 18th and early 19th century, is built on solid foundations, such as his understanding that “association renders men stronger and brings out each person’s best gifts,” while living a solitary, hermit-like existence in the trees was more likely to lead to bitter disagreements borne of a lack of trust between Cosimo and everyone else in the village. (I thought I also detected some elements here satirizing utopian movements of the 19th and even 20th centuries.)

The last third or so of the narrative starts to slow down as Calvino plunges Cosimo into more situations grounded in European history, thus reducing his interactions with members of the village and his own family, but the fact that he maintained a strong plot through a fable without having it fall apart at the end (or having to tie it up with an absurd plot twist) is a testament to his skill as a fabulist. I’d still recommend If on a winter’s night a traveler… (#20 on the Klaw 100) to a reader who has yet to read any Calvino works, but The Baron in the Trees would be an excellent second choice.

Next up: Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The Master and Margarita.

I don’t often re-read books, primarily for the reason that there are too many books out there I have never read and would like to, but also because a second read never quite stimulates the mind the way the first read does. The narrative greed isn’t the same when you remember every major plot twist, no matter how skilled the writer. The fun in encountering some clever turn of phrase, or pun, or imaginative element is lost the second time around as well. For those reasons, I’d avoided a re-read of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita for years, fearing I remembered too much to enjoy reading it again, even though it sits atop my personal ranking of the top 101 novels I’ve read. It’s almost exactly twenty years since I first read Bulgakov’s masterpiece, and I’m relieved to report it held up well against the expectations of my memories of the book, perhaps aided by the fact that I read a different translation this time around.

Bulgakov was a state playwright under the Soviets, but was himself an anti-communist who suffered under the repressive regime that refused to publish many of his works and denied his request to emigrate to a country where he could practice his craft freely. This novel, completed over the last decade of his life and published more than 20 years after his death during a brief thaw under Nikita Khrushchev, destroys the communist regime while also mocking the oligarchs who flourished through their obeisance and outright cowardice. It’s wickedly subversive, and yet often so subtle that I’m surprised the Soviets saw it for what it was – or were willing to publish it after they understood its true intent.

Bulgakov’s masterpiece is a sly satire of communism and Russian life under that political and economic system in Russia between the world wars, told via multiple narratives that all collide across time as the book concludes, with the one common thread among them coming in the person of Satan himself. The devil, calling himself Dr. Woland, appears in Moscow with his retinue – comprising Behemoth, an anthropomorphic cat; Azazello, an ugly stout man with flaming red hair; and Koroviev, also known as Fagot, a sort of chief-of-staff character who always wears a checked jacket and pince-nez (apparently an allusion to The Brothers Karamazov) – to reveal the baseness of the privileged classes under communism. Bulgakov’s Satan is not quite the Satan of the Bible – in some ways, he’s a forerunner of Tyler Durden, causing mayhem to provide meaning to a deadened life in a repressive society – just as Bulgakov’s Yeshua ha-Nozri, betrayed by Judas and crucified under Pontius Pilate, is not quite the Biblical Jesus.

The titular characters, while central to the novel’s themes of freedom, cowardice, and redemption, don’t appear until roughly a quarter of the novel has passed. Bulgakov opens the scene with a discussion between the poet Ivan Homeless and the avowed atheist Berlioz, only to have their talk interrupted by the appearance of a strange foreigner, Woland, who endeavors to show Berlioz that the devil does, in fact, exist, with a gruesome demonstration. This begins a chain of events where Woland and his retinue take over Berlioz’ apartment and hold a “seance” at a local theater where they dazzle the people with magic tricks that have hilarious consequences for the greedy audience members. The master, meanwhile, first appears in a sanitarium in conversation with Ivan Homeless, telling the story of his arrest by the secret police for his authorship of an anti-communist novel about Pontius Pilate, and how that arrest separated him from the love of his life, Margarita, for whom Woland has a special plan in the greatest scene among many in this complex novel.

Cowardice is the most explicit theme of The Master and Margarita, even though I think Bulgakov’s ultimate intent was to expose the emptiness of the Soviet state. Pontius Pilate, in a story that Woland begins telling but that the master completes in his novel-within-the-novel*, knows that the decision to pardon a common criminal over the peaceful philosopher Yeshua ha-Nozri is the wrong one, but given more than one opportunity to try to change that decision, he does nothing more than make a perfunctory request that his superior reconsider it. The master, while implicitly condemning Pilate’s own cowardice, exhibits some of his own, giving up on his life and his art when confronted by a seemingly invincible State that threatens to “disappear” any who threaten its sovereignty or integrity.

*That bit of meta-fiction gives rise to the most famous line from the novel, Woland’s response to the master’s lament that he burned the manuscript for the work that landed him in an asylum for its seditious nature: “Manuscripts never burn.”

Those disappearances are the subject of frequent allusions in the novel, in oblique references to the secret police and in Woland’s habit of moving people around the country or in transmogrifying them into other forms, such as the vaguely porcine man who becomes a flying pig. These fantastical elements were a major part of why I fell in love with the novel when I first read it at age nineteen – I hadn’t seen a classical novel deviate so far from the typical constraints of realistic literature; the most fantastical elements I’d come across were the coincidences that populated great works written before the last half of the 19th century. I didn’t know it as magical realism at the time, or even understand it as a literary technique – I think I just associated it with science fiction or fantasy novels – but Bulgakov’s use of it has to be one of the earliest such examples in literature, along with the works of Franz Kafka, much of whose work was published during the time Bulgakov spent writing The Master and Margarita. What better way to satirize a totalitarian state than through Satan exercising a similar disregard for human life, property, and individuality, alluding to a religion that the state sought to extinguish?

This is a remarkably rich, inventive novel, decades ahead of its time, socially important, funny, outrageous, and a tremendous pleasure to read.

Some stray thoughts:

* I first encountered the book in a class taught by Professor Donald Fanger (now emeritus) at Harvard called “Comedy and the Novel.” How good was that class? Six of the eight novels we read are on the Klaw 101, as is the book he told me a few years later was the unofficial ninth title he couldn’t squeeze into the semester, At Swim-Two-Birds. It was, by far, the best class I took in college, and the one that has had the greatest influence on me after the fact.

* I just discovered that there’s a graphic novel version of The Master and Margarita available, as well as one for Kafka’s The Trial. I’m curious how the illustrator handled Woland’s retinue – Bulgakov’s descriptions are quite vivid, but while Woland and his crew are somewhat anthropomorphic, they could easily turn into monsters without straying far from the original text, which I don’t think was Bulgakov’s intent.

* I’ve become slightly obsessed with spotting possible influences on J.K. Rowling, including A Dance to the Music of Time and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I might add The Master and Margarita to the list for the magical realism elements involved in Apartment #50, especially those elements that appear in the chapter “The Great Ball at Satan’s,” which seemed to show up all over Hogwart’s.

Next up: I’m way behind on writeups, having already finished Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica and moved on to Haruki Murakami’s After Dark.

The Year of the Hare.

I’ve got a new blog post up on ESPN.com about Aroldis Chapman and Matt Purke with some other AFL/instructional league notes.

Also, congratulations to all of my Cardinals-fan readers. It’s a little scary to think they pulled this off before any of their high-end pitching prospects reached the majors.

And finally, boardgame designer Reiner Knizia has a new solitaire puzzle/game app available called Lines of Goldicon for just $0.99. I’ve played it twice so far and find it surprisingly complex for a simple set of rules; you can play it quickly, but playing it well seems to take a lot of forethought and a little luck.

Arto Paasilinna’s The Year of the Hare is the most successful novel by Finnish author/poet, more a novella than a full-length novel, telling the story of a journalist who walks away from his life after his car hits and wounds a hare in the forest outside of Helsinki. He spends the next year wandering through the country, headed generally north, encountering eccentric locals and trying to reestablish the priorities in his life.

The protagonist, Charles Vatanen, is a disaffected if successful journalist with a shrewish wife and a boat he doesn’t need, so walking away from his life proves easier than it might for most men of his age. When the car in which he’s riding hits the hare and breaks its leg, he makes a splint for the hare and decides to carry it with him while nursing it back to health. His rejection of modern society and its rampant, empty consumerism leads him to take odd jobs in small towns in the Finnish countryside, including restoring a dilapidated cabin, where he ends up in an extended struggle with a bear who resents the human intrusion into his forest, a chase that goes on for an impossibly long period until Vatanen is arrested by friendly Soviet officials for illegally crossing the border. There’s also an alcohol-induced blackout, a peculiar lawyer, the illegal sale of sunken German munitions, and a wargame put on for the benefit of tourists that leads to a literal and figurative tug-of-war over the hare.

The problem with The Year of the Hare is that it’s more escapist fantasy than actual fable. A fable should have some point, whether it presents a metaphor for some aspect of life or mines humor from parody, but there’s no such cohesion in Paasilinna’s work here. We could interpret the scene in the church, where a priest sees the hare on the altar and ends up chasing it around the building with a pistol before inadvertently shooting himself, as a commentary on the decline of religion in Finland, but I couldn’t read that passage as more than slapstick, with a robed figure running through his own church shooting at a tiny rabbit and putting a bullet through his own foot as well as through the knee of the Christ figure in the apse. Vatanen isn’t running away from anything except the vapidity of modern urban life – something I think many readers can respect and understand regardless of wehre they live – but he’s not really running towards anything. It’s one thing to check out, but another to live as a vagrant without any kind of plan for survival once the cash runs out.

I can’t be certain of this but I believe the translation did Paasilinna no favors. Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language, like Hungarian (Magyar) and Estonian, completely unrelated to the Indo-European languages (including English) that dominate Europe, which might make the translation more difficult. Regardless, referring to a helicopter as a “warplane” or saying that, “The hare was rather nervous; the raven had evidently been molesting it while Vatanen was away working,” is like playing a piano that’s out of tune; either the translator doesn’t speak colloquial English, or Finnish is the weirdest language on earth.

Italo Calvino is probably the best fabulist I’ve come across, and while it’s not my favorite work of his, Marcovaldo: or the Seasons in the City is probably the best collection of fables I’ve found. The blurb for The Year of the Hare compares it to Life of Pi, but the latter book is far superior whether read as a fable or merely for entertainment, with plenty of room for differing interpretations of its meaning and its endnig. As for the comparison offered to Watership Down, putting a a bunny in your book does not make you Richard Adams.

Next up: George Gissing’s novel about struggling writers in late 1800s London, New Grub Street (also available free for the Kindle). Too bad Grub Street is long gone or else we might see an attempt to occupy it.

Vile Bodies.

Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies is probably the funniest of the seven novels of his that I’ve read, and certainly the most cynical. Vile Bodies is about upper-class twits in London who aren’t so much vile as venal, often witless, definitely oblivious, living up the good life in the 1920s without apparent purpose or direction other than to get drunk (preferably on someone else’s dime) and have fun.

If there’s a central character at all in this deliberately disjointed novel, it’s Adam Fenwick-Symes, who wants to marry Nina Blount but has no money and, when he does manage to get a hold of some, can’t seem to keep it for very long. Nina’s father has money but is dotty and never seems to recognize Adam from one visit to the next. Adam and Nina travel in a group of friends who encounter Lady Metroland (the madam Margot from Decline and Fall), a strange missionary (parodying Aimee Semple McPherson) and her “angels” who disappear from the novel without much explanation midway through, and a rural auto race of uncommon violence.

Waugh’s most obvious targets are the idle, amoral young rich of the book’s era, but he reserves some of his ire for others, including the idle, amoral old rich, the British government, and the tabloids. Three separate characters fill a role as gossip columnist (“Mr. Chatterbox”) for one of the Fleet Street papers, and all three discharge their duties by fabricating rumors and, in Adam’s case when he’s Mr. Chatterbox, fabricating characters entirely while trying to set off new trends in London fashion. (One is reminded of our current battles over “the narrative” in the highly random world of professional sports.) Every satirical depiction and passage lies on Waugh’s own disdain for the venal nature of his targets: Everyone lies, everyone can be bought, everyone is only out for himself. Even Adam, apparently motivated by love, can’t pass up an opportunity to make more money even if it puts his engagement to Nina at risk. Nina, meanwhile, drops Adam for a man she doesn’t love who has money. Another character, who also disappears midstream, is married off by her rich parents because it’s a “suitable” match over her objections that she can’t stand the man.

Institutions are just as venal as individuals in Vile Bodies. This is spoken by Miles Malpractice, the third character in the book to serve as gossip columnist, visiting Agatha Runcible in a convalescent home after she got drunk and smashed up a racecar she shouldn’t have been driving even when sober:

”Agatha, Adam, my dears. The time I’ve had trying to get in. I can’t tell you how bogus they were downstairs. First I said I was Lord Chasm, and that wasn’t any good; and I said I was one of the doctors; and that wasn’t any good; and I said I was your young man, and that wasn’t any good; and I said I was a gossip writer, and they let me up at once and said I wasn’t to excite you, but would I put a piece in my paper about their nursing home.”

Hey, as long as we get something out of it, feel free to put the patient’s life at risk.

Waugh’s novel proved prescient in some ways, such as the clouds of war putting an end to the gay times of the book, and the tendency of economic boom times to spawn legions of wealthy twits doing twitty things. (Think of all of the famous-for-being-famous “celebrities” of the last dozen years.) And prose this biting – “The truth is that like so many people of their age and class, Adam and Nina were suffering from being sophisticated about sex before they were at all widely experienced” – is my favorite kind of literary humor. But timely satire such as this relies on knowledge of the real-life targets for maximum effect, something few readers today, especially outside of England, are likely to bring to the book. The aspects of Vile Bodies that worked for me were the timeless ones, direct hits to the baser parts of human nature; the silly names and the sendups of politicians, media moguls, and the aforementioned evangelist have lost their power to shock or amuse over time.

The film was later made into a film by Stephen Fry called Bright Young Things, which was Waugh’s original title for the book; the film, available through that link for $4.35 on DVD, had an outstanding cast but garnered mixed reviews from critics who had already read the book.

Next up: Poodle Springs, a novel begun by Raymond Chandler, who had written just four chapters at his death, and completed by Robert Parker, author of the Spenser novels.

The Good Soldier Švejk.

Jaroslav Hašek’s unfinished comic novel The Good Soldier Švejk: and His Fortunes in the World War, ranked #96 on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100 and part of the Bloomsbury 100, is a funny, sprawling, slow-reading, and deeply angry look at the pointlessness of war through the eyes of an anarchist soldier who’d be at home in Project Mayhem yet manages to put on a good face enough to keep himself out of harm’s way.

The novel follows the exploits – although given how little he manages to accomplish, we might better call them inploits, or unploits – of the soldier named Švejk (pronounced something like “schwayk”), who finds himself drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army at the dawn of World War I and acts with a single goal in mind, that of his own survival. Along the way, he’s passed from one half-wit superior officer to another, from power-mad lieutenants to drunken chaplains, gets lost (most likely on purpose) in Bohemia in a section ironically referred to as “Švejk’s anabasis,” gets arrested and nearly hung, and always responds to inquiries by telling the absolute truth, embellished with a ridiculous anecdote of someone Švejk knew in his hometown.

The grand secret of Švejk – the character and the novel – is that absurdity is the only viable strategy in the face of the absurdity of a higher authority. Faced with a war that makes survival unlikely, fought over a cause in which none of the fighters has a personal stake, Švejk chooses to “pretend to be an idiot,” playing the part of a perfect innocent who relives what is, in essence, the same episode over and over and always escaping by disarming and/or exasperating those who wish to send him to certain death on the front lines.

If this sounds a lot like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, then you’ve got the idea. Švejk is not a direct antecedent to Yossarian; the latter’s subversion is explicit, while the former works through simpler and more ostensibly innocent means, like taking a direct order a little too literally. Working as batman to the lieutenant he haunts for much of the book, Švejk fulfills his master’s order for a dog by kidnapping one off the street, only to find that the dog’s owner is the lieutenant’s commanding officer, the insane Colonel Kraus, who peppers his harangues by asking his charges if they know what obvious words like “window” or “hoe” mean. Yossarian engages in more active efforts of sabotage – and has plenty of help from his fellow soldiers – whereas Švejk is a solitary operative attempting not to end a futile war but only to get himself to the next sunrise without getting shot.

(I’ve struggled to find a definitive answer on whether Švejk was a direct influence on Catch-22; Wikipedia – which is never wrong – states that it was, probably based on the claim by Czech writer Arnošt Lustig that Heller told him he couldn’t have written his masterpiece if he hadn’t first read Švejk. That seems to be the only source for this assertion; this 2004 New York Times review of a Švejk play states that Heller “ told various interviewers that Céline and Kafka were his most powerful influences and that Švejk was ”just a funny book,’” while a Vanity Fair article from August gives a non-Švejk origin story for Catch-22. I could see a truth in between the two extremes, where Heller, having read the book, was influenced by it on a subconscious level, drawing inspiration from its hero’s response to the war’s absurdity but never returning to the earlier novel in his writing process or alluding to it directly in the text.)

The Good Soldier Švejk is tough to read, even with its humor, for two reasons. One is the translation by Cecil Parrott that has earned criticism for excessively literal, “unimaginative” translations of words and phrases, leaving speech sounded stilted and losing the humor of the original Czech text (that’s the critic’s opinion, not mine). Slavic texts are often tough to read because the sentence structure in those languages differs from ours and because the literary style, especially in the 19th century and early 20th, tended toward long, ponderous passages. The other drawback is that the book is, by design, repetitive. War is stupid, monotonous, and produces entirely foreseeable results. I can’t blame Hašek for making that point through the circular plot, but the feeling that we’re not really going anywhere – combined with the knowledge that the novel is unfinished, so we can’t even get where we might have been going – made my forward progress slow.

Unrelated to any of the above, Hašek talks a lot about food, including jitrnice (a type of Czech liverwurst), goulash, and kolache (a fruit-filled pastry found in parts of Texas where Czech immigrants settled). I was most struck by Hašek’s description of how the insatiable soldier Baloun describes a dish he remembers from back home:

‘You know, at home in Kašperské Hory we make a sort of small dumplings out of raw potatoes. We boil them, dip them in egg and roll them well in breadcrumbs. After that we fry them with bacon.’ He pronounced the last word in a mysteriously solemn tone.

Shouldn’t we always pronounce “bacon” in a mysteriously solemn tone?

Next up: Evelyn Waugh’s biting comic novel Vile Bodies.

Pulp.

I waited until that night, drove over, parked outside. Nice neighborhood. Definition of a nice neighborhood: a place you couldn’t afford to live in.

Charles Bukowski wrote his final novel, Pulp, as he was dying of leukemia, and passed away before the book was published. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise then that the overarching theme of the book is death – facing it, fleeing from it, and wondering what there is to life other than speeding towards it.

The protagonist of Pulp, Nick Belane, is a private detective who is simultaneously lucky (his cases have a habit of solving themselves) and down on his luck (he’s somewhat broke and usually heading to the bottom of a bottle) when he receives a visit from a new client, who calls herself Lady Death, and most likely is the Grim Reaper in more attractive form than we’re using to seeing. She wants Belane (which I presume rhymes with “Spillane”) to track down a man she believes to be the French author Celine, who should be dead by about thirty years but is apparently running around Los Angeles. Nick picks up a few more clients, including a man who believes his controlling new girlfriend is a space alien, another man who believes his wife is cheating on him, and a friend who hires him to find the elusive Red Sparrow but doesn’t actually know what it is. (The Red Sparrow is most likely a reference to Black Sparrow Press, a small publisher whose financial support allowed Bukowski to become a full-time writer at age 45.)

On its surface, Pulp is a hard-boiled detective novel reminiscent of the clipped tones of Hammett and tight yet rich prose of Chandler, although Belane’s toughness is more superficial than that of the Continental Op or Philip Marlowe. Belane bemoans his inability to catch a break in between catching breaks, dropping into deep depressions that last until the next barstool, where he typically orders a few drinks, starts a fight, and leaves more or less victorious. Clients find him, as do clues, yet he still manages to encounter no end of trouble, much of it because of his own bad decisions.

In between drinks and fights, Belane muses on the nature of life and often doesn’t like what he sees, looking at the indignities of this mortal coil from bodily functions to the need for money to questioning his own sanity. One of the book’s most memorable scenes puts Belane in the waiting room for a psychiatrist he wants to question; the waiting room is full of apparently crazy people, but when Belane’s name is called and he’s ushered in, the apparent psychiatrist claims he’s just a lawyer and Belane is yet another crazy person who’s entered the wrong office. Is Belane crazy? Did he black out? Did reality change on him, as it has a habit of doing to him throughout the book?

As much as Belane looks at life and cringes at what he sees, he’s not running headlong into death, even though Lady Death tells him a few times that he’ll be seeing her again soon. But it’s his inner monologue that really makes Pulp memorable and often very funny in a wry sort of way; it’s an accumulation of decades of wisdom, much of it not all that useful, wrapped up in a fast-paced detective story where the ultimate case is solving the mystery of life. I won’t spoil the ending, although you can probably figure out where the book is heading, and even so the plot is hardly the thing there. Bukowski managed to pay homage to my favorite genre through a black-comic look at the end of life. It’s quite an achievement.

Next up: Richard Stark’s heist novel The Score, available as a free eBook for the Kindle (or Kindle iPad app) through that link. Stark was one of Donald Westlake’s pen names, and I reviewed the first novel in this series two years ago.

Behold, Here’s Poison.

Author Georgette Heyer is best known – or so I’m told by Wikipedia, which is never wrong – as the creator of the literary subgenre known as the “Regency romance,” historical novels set among the English upper class in the early 19th century (that is, the time of Jane Austen’s books) but written in the 20th century. I had no idea who Heyer was when my wife gave me one of her non-romance novels, the mystery Behold, Here’s Poison, for Christmas last year. I can see the connection to those Regency romances, which Wikipedia describes as featuring “intelligent, fast-paced dialog between the protagonists,” as this book was fast and witty, but I’d be hard-pressed to call it a detective novel and it fell a little short as a mystery. It’s more of a fun thriller built around a country-house murder.

Gregory Matthews is the head of household at the Poplars and holds all the keys, literal and metaphorical, to the lives of the family members around him. When he’s found poisoned (by nicotine) in his bed one morning, everyone in the house is revealed to have a motive – his sister, sisters-in-law, niece, two nephews, the family doctor, and so on – while no one has a clear alibi except the one man, the intelligent, sardonic Randall Matthews, who had the most to gain directly from Matthews’ death: nearly his entire liquid fortune. Superintendent Hannasyde and Inspector Hemingway, who appear together in three other Heyer novels, arrive on the scene to piece together the mystery of Matthews’ death, a story complicated by the eventual death of one of the many other suspects.

Randall is by far the most interesting character in the book, as he’s a few levels above everyone else in brainpower and isn’t afraid to show it, tweaking his relations (especially his nosy aunts) for his own enjoyment. His arrival after the elder Matthews’ murder leaves no doubt about his role in the rest of the book – he’s there for dry wit, as when he first appears, entering a room filled with his relations after they’ve all learned of Gregory’s death:

“And which of you,” he inquired, looking amiably round, “is responsible for dear uncle’s death? Or don’t you know?”
This airy question produced a feeling of tension, which was possibly Randall’s object. Mrs. Lupton said: “that is not amusing nor is this a time for jokes in bad taste.”
Randall opened his eyes at her. “Dear aunt, did you think I was joking?”

Just about every family member has some humorous aspect to his or her character, and putting them all in a room brings the worst out in them, making the family scenes – and there are many – the real highlight of the novel.

While I enjoyed the book for the dry humor and quick prose, I can’t call it a proper detective story – more of an old-fashioned thriller. A true detective story stars the detective; he can be any sort of detective, a police inspector or a PI, a sharp investigator or a drunken hack, but his personality drives the story and he becomes the hero (or antihero, as the case may be) through which the reader experiences the investigation and solution of the crime. Hannasyde’s character is bland – I wouldn’t even call him “vanilla,” which is rather an unfortunate synonym for “bland” since real vanilla flavor is anything but – with no distinguishing characteristics other than the natural suspicion you’d expect to see in any detective character, and the conversations between Hannasyde and Hemingway are merely explanations of where they stand in the investigation. Hannasyde’s best role is as a foil for Randall, who admires the detective’s intelligence but also plays him for his own benefit.

I’m also reluctant to categorize Behold, Here’s Poison as a true mystery because of how few clues there were to the killer’s identity. I rarely figure out who the killer is in better mysteries, but can always see how I should have figured it out once I reach the conclusion. In this case, however, Heyer’s explanation fit the story to date but was based on awfully scant evidence, some of which wasn’t even clear to me as I read it because Hannasyde didn’t discover it – in fact, he only solves the crime when another character fills in the missing blanks in the final chapter.

Those two complaints do undersell the book a little; it’s a good read because it’s full of witty dialogue and most of the Matthews clan are humorously drawn caricatures – a group of slightly batty would-be members of the gentry whose dialogue will elicit more smirks than laughs, but still plenty to run you through the book towards the conclusion of the murder. I would just urge you not to look at this as a detective story or as a mystery, but more along the lines of what might happen if P.G. Wodehouse decided to try to satirize those genres.

Next up: Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a cute mystery that made Bradley a first-time novelist at age 70.