I posted a new projected first round for next week’s MLB Rule 4 draft yesterday, with a new name up top, and did a brief Klawchat as well. I’ve already heard some fresh things since that mock went up, including that the Astros aren’t entirely off Bryant after all.

I enjoyed Alessandro Piperno’s debut novel, The Worst Intentions, even though it often turned crude, because it was funny and featured so many cleverly crafted characters. His second novel, Persecution, shows far more polish and greater empathy with its flawed protagonist, with Piperno’s dry wit now applied to a tragic story, the fall from grace of a pediatric oncologist whose aloofness leads to his undoing.

Dr. Leo Pontecorvo had what he thought was a perfect life – a loving wife, two sons, a lucrative job with meaning as well as social importance, a freelance gig writing about health issues for a major Italian newspaper – until it is shattered by two accusations of wrongdoing, presented to us in reverse order. The novel opens with the Pontecorvos sitting down to a family dinner with the TV news on in the background, only to have the broadcaster announce that Leo stands accused of a sexual relationship with his 13-year-old son’s girlfriend, Camilla. Through flashbacks, Piperno’s unnamed yet omnipresent narrator leads the reader through Leo’s rise and fall, including allegations of financial impropriety and the disastrous consequences of his mishandling of Camilla’s crush on him, as well as the less-than-perfect truth below the surface of his marriage and family life, so that he is by turns sympathetic and deserving of his fate.

Pontecorvo’s emotional immaturity mirrors that of the lead character in The Worst Intentions, but without the earlier book’s emphasis on sexual immaturity (although Leo has his moments). He’s never quite cut the cord with his domineering Jewish mother, and has floated through so many difficult situations through either the force of his intellect or the power of his personality that he’s unable to cope with actual crises, often leaving the management to his doting wife. He’s hopeless when faced with people who have competing agendas because he assumes others will be rational and thoughtful, and can’t imagine them pursuing actions that might do him harm. That gullibility leads him to lend money to a wayward student who tricks him into appearing to commit usury, which also points to the scientific, rational-minded Leo’s inability to responsibly handle anything to do with money. It also means that when Camilla’s crush on him first takes form, he has no concept of how others might perceive his responses, and walks right into what might have been a trap – although the reliability of the narration is an open question even as the book ends.

At heart, Leo believes himself to be a good man, but his actions speak to a superficial and pretentious inner character. He loves to take photographs, but refuses to take family pictures, even on vacations, because they’re not artistic:

Her husband only photographed dead things. And, even worse, he lavished all the care in the world on doing it. But ask him to take a “normal” photograph, who knows, the boys learning to ride a bicycyle, his wife in evening dress or posing in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or wherever the hell he wanted? Certainly not, not a chance. When you asked him, the artist felt outraged.

He’s not an artist in any sense of the word, of course, but the aspirational nature of his behavior in every one of his endeavors, even in parenting (which leads to acts of emotional cruelty toward his sons), reveals his own insecurity – which becomes fully apparent when his reaction to the public nature of the scandal is to hide, literally and figuratively, in the basement, abandoning his wife and children while believing they’ve actually abandoned him. He’s an overgrown child, incapable of handling true adversity in an adult fashion, of proclaiming his innocence to his wife, or working to regain the trust of either of his sons, or doing much of anything to fight the charges against him. He goes underground – ironic for a man whose surname begins with the Italian word for “bridge” – and never emerges.

Piperno’s strongest resemblance to Philip Roth and other Jewish-American writers – Piperno’s father is Jewish, and both of Piperno’s protagonists are Italian Jews – lies in that strong sense of irony evident in Leo’s name. (His actions don’t reflect the courage of the astrological lion of his first name, either.) The pediatric oncologist undone by the accusations of a child, the

The main weakness of Persecution is the depiction of Leo’s wife, Rachel, although she may get a fuller treatment in the sequel, The Inseparables, still unpublished in English but intended from the start as the second half of this diptych. Rachel Pontecorvo has much in common with her Biblical namesake – married to a doofus who is so naïve that he’s tricked by his brother and then father-in-law, she bears him two sons, and ends up suffering for her choices – but she’s a shadow in the book, nearly always the voice of reason when Leo is acting like a child. She’s never given the chance to reject him outright after the allegations, and we don’t see any curiosity about whether they’re true. Giving her character a third dimension would have improved the book beyond the study of Leo’s character, although I’ll reserve judgment until I read part two, which won the Italian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize last year.

If you appreciate Roth, or Joseph Heller, or the more mundane elements of Kurt Vonnegut’s works (as opposed to the sci-fi trappings around them), you must give Persecution a shot. Even during the moments when you’d like to give Leo a hard slap across the face, this portrait of a man whose superficially perfect life has lost its veneer to reveal an empty interior is searing, bitter, and funny.

Next up: As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m reading, but not enjoying, A Game of Thrones.

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry.

My last spring training dispatch, on Cubs prospect Pierce Johnson and Giants prospects Adalberto Mejia and Mac Williamson, went up this morning for Insiders.

B.S. Johnson was an avant-garde writer who wrote poetry, plays, and novels that earned minimal recognition during his brief lifetime – he killed himself in 1973 at age 40 – but have since acquired a substantial following among academics and fans of absurdist and post-modern fiction. I hadn’t heard of Johnson at all until finding a passage that discussed his works, specifically the use of metafictional techniques in Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, in James Wood’s How Fiction Works about a year ago. Christie Malry is bizarre, a portrait of the sociopath as a young figment of the author’s imagination, an heir to James Joyce and Flann O’Brien and a forerunner of Jasper Fforde.

Christie Malry is an 18-year-old narcissist and malcontent who believes that the world is out to do him harm, even in such clearly impersonal acts as putting up a building where he might want to walk if the sidewalk were a little wider. His first job at a bank, which he takes to be closer to the money, bores him, but he eventually discovers accounting and the system of double-entry bookkeeping developed in the late 1400s by the Franciscan frier Luca Pacioli, whose book on the subject is quoted several times in Johnson’s work. Malry decides to create a general ledger of his life, counting assaults against him as debits and undertaking acts of terrorism against society, starting with hoax bomb threats and escalating from there, as a way of balancing the books.

Johnson’s approach to the book has the air of calculated carelessness, such as when he says that the death toll from Malry’s biggest attack was just over twenty thousand, because “this was the first figure that came to hand as it is roughly the number of words of which the novel consists so far.” Johnson engages in dialogues with Malry, and has other characters lament their own use as pawns in the novel to further the plot without any significant development – especially Malry’s mother, who tells her back story to explain some of Malry’s behavior and then dies because she has exhausted her purpose. The arbitrary values Malry assigns to various slights are much higher than the value he places on the death of another person, which is just over a pound a head. Malry’s girlfriend is only named the Shrike, the name of a family of birds often called “butcher birds” because they impale insects on plant spikes or thorns as a form of food storage.

Johnson’s suicide shortly after the book’s publication means we won’t get a full explanation of some of the thematic questions in the book, one of which, for me, revolves around the recurring element of food. Most of the scenes revolving around Malry and other characters eating depict it as merely an act of sustenance, but Malry’s accounting job for a firm that handles catering and mass-production of processed sweets, leading him to the idea of using poison as a weapon to balance the ledger, which, reflecting my own philosophy on the subject, struck me as an unsubtle jab at the unhealthfulness of processed foods.

The novel does have a serious theme beneath its absurdist surface. Malry’s actions reflect a general refusal to live in society – a repudiation of the social contract from someone who was given no choice about participating in it in the first place. In a world of limited choice, Malry makes one of the only choices he feels like he can make, and one of the only ways he can reject the existing order. He did not opt in, and he believes this is the only way he can opt out. Because he feels no empathy, and places no value on any life but his own, he has no compunction about the growing tolls of his “credits,” but even so discovers that he can never quite balance the ledger and even these acts of terror don’t remove him from the system. Is life meaningless? A zero-sum game? Or do we all end our days with a pile of bad debt that we must write off without ever balancing our books? Johnson avoids answers but shines while asking the questions.

Next up: Tom Rachman’s 2011 novel The Imperfectionists, recommended by a reader right after its publication, which so far has been nearly perfect.

Catching up on recent reads.

For a variety of reasons, I fell behind on book reviews in December, so I’m cheating a little with an omnibus post on everything I read between Thanksgiving and New Year’s that I haven’t written up yet, aside from the usual Wodehouse/Christie/Stout stuff I generally don’t cover here. I had pretty mixed feelings on all of these works except the one non-fiction title, which is probably part of why I procrastinated on the reviews – it’s easier to write something quickly when you know which way you’re leaning from the start, but these books had enough positives and negatives to keep me from coming down on either side.

* The longest book I read in that span, and the one most deserving of a longer writeup, is Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, part of the TIME 100 and #81 on the Modern Library 100. Tabbed “the great American novel” by Martin Amis, praised by authors from Amis to his father Kingsley to Salman Rushdie to Christopher Hitchens, Augie March is an ambitious, expansive story of its title character’s growth from an impoverished Chicago childhood through one money-chasing scheme after another, including various brushes with the law and materialistic women. It starts slowly, hits a promising note for several hundred pages, and then ends with a gigantic whimper that ruined an otherwise enjoyable serious yet comical read for me.

Augie’s odyssey of self-discovery while he’s trying to make a buck – or a pile of bucks – draws him into various webs of fascinating side characters, a panoply identified by Hitchens as Dickensian, but one I think comes from the broader tradition of picaresque novels (to which Dickens contributed in The Pickwick Papers) and that continues through postmodern works like Ulysses and The Recognitions and later writers like Dawn Powell, Haruki Murakami, and Richard Russo. Augie March even has the peripatetic thread that defines the picaresque novel, even though Augie’s adventures, like his brief but disastrous time in the Navy, rarely encompass the high ambitions of classic picaresque characters.

Augie himself straddles the line between hero and antihero – he’s the protagonist and quite likeable despite his highly fungible morality, in part because he’s got the rags-to-riches vibe about him and in part because he entertains us through one peculiar situation after another – creating a curious ambiguity about Bellow’s point. If this is to be the great American novel, what exactly is Bellow telling us about the American experience? Is the key to the American Dream a refusal to commit oneself to anything – an education, a career, a marriage? Or is he saying the American Dream is an illusion that we can pursue but never catch? I think Bellow was posing the questions without attempting to provide any answers, which works from a thematic perspective but left the conclusion of the plot so open that I felt like I was reading an unfinished work, like The Good Soldier Svejk or Dead Souls.

* I wanted to like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, since I think Lolita is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and while I didn’t enjoy Pale Fire I do recognize how clever it is and that I might not fully appreciate its humor. But Pnin, the story of a fish-out-of-water Russian professor at a fictional university in upstate New York, suffers from Pale Fire‘s problem even more deeply: The target of its parodic efforts is too obscure for the average reader to appreciate. Where Pale Fire satirized technical and literary analysis of poetry, Pnin takes aim at the ivory towers of academic life at private universities, which is probably hilarious if you’re a professor or a grad student but largely went right by me as someone who sleepwalked through college by doing the minimum amount of work required for most of my classes.

* Abbe Provost’s 1731 novel Manon Lescaut seemed to be stalking me over the last two months, so I had to read it – it appears on Daniel Burt’s revised version of the The Novel 100, then was the subject of allusions in at least two other books I read that time, including Augie March and I think Nicole Krauss’ History of Love as well. Manon Lescaut follows the Chevalier des Grieux as he ruins himself over his obsession with the title character, a young, beautiful, and entirely materialistic woman who throws the Chevalier overboard every time he runs out of money. The two engage in multiple schemes to defraud wealthier men who fall in love (or lust, really) with Manon at first sight, and eventually end up sent to the French colony at New Orleans, where the pattern repeats itself with a less fortunate conclusion. Its controversial status at the time would be lost on any reader today over the age of 12, but its depiction of sexual obsession mixed with several early examples of suspense writing (before either genre really existed in its own right) made it a quick and intense read. Plus now I get the references.

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is another short novel of obsession, also appearing on the Novel 100, this one telling the tale of a man who is so in love with a woman who is betrothed to someone else that he eventually takes his own life. Told through the letters Werther writes to his friend, I found the deterioration of Werther’s mind as his depression deepens to be far more interesting than the pseudo-romantic aspect of a man so in love with another woman that he’d rather die than live without her. He just needed a good therapist. It was by far the shortest novel I had left on the Novel 100 and brought my total read on that list to 80, so it was worth the two hours or less I spent on it.

* Zadie Smith’s On Beauty reimagines E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (which I read and didn’t care for that much) in a serious comic novel around a conflict of race rather than class, set in a New England college town in the early 2000s. Smith also sends up the conflict between conservative and liberal academic ideologies (or theologies, more accurately) in one of the subplots that, much like that of Pnin, ended up missing the mark for me, although I could at least recognize glimpses of my alma mater in some of the satire. The novel’s greatest strength is the way Smith defines so many individual characters, especially those of the Belsey family, headed by a white father and an African-American mother and whose children are searching for racial, religious, and cultural identities while their parents try to recover from their father’s inability to keep it in his pants. I couldn’t help but compare On Beauty, which has some brilliant dialogue along with the deep characterizations and is often quite funny, to Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, which produced very mixed feelings in me when I first read it and didn’t fully appreciate (as I think I do now) how Smith was trying to stretch the boundaries of realistic fiction to tell a broad and expansive story. On Beauty, paying homage to a classic work of British literature, feels restrained by the confines of its inspiration when Smith’s imagination is a huge part of why her writing is so appealing, leaving it a good novel, a funny yet smart one that reads quickly, but a slightly unsatisfying one because I know she can do more than this.

* Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World tells the history of that somewhat mundane, unrespected fish, which had a substantial impact on the growth of civilization in Europe and in North America, and which was one of humanity’s first warnings (duly ignored) that we could exhaust a seemingly endless natural resource. Kurlansky’s book Salt turned a similar trick, taking a topic that seemed inherently uninteresting and finding interesting facts and anecdotes to allow him to make the story readable. Cod actually has a stronger narrative thread because Kurlansky can trace the fish’s rise in popularity and commercial value as well as its role in international relations, climaxing in the sudden collapse of cod stocks and the uncertain ending around the fish’s future as a species and a food source. We’re really good at overfishing, because technology has allowed us to catch more fish (as well as species we didn’t intend to catch) which has in turn made fish too cheap to consume. Kurlansky didn’t focus enough on this issue for my tastes, although Cod was published in 1997 when overfishing was seen as more of a fringe environmentalist concern, before celebrity chefs embraced sustainability and began preaching it to the masses.

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 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, 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 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.