Wise Children.

Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 1984, and then won a special Best of the James Tait Black award in 2012 as the best of the 90-odd winners of the annual honor in its history, beating out such widely acknowledged classics as Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter (which was shortlisted), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Robert Graves’ Claudius duology, and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I read it in April of 2016 and found it impenetrable, between her recursive prose and her seamless mixture of unreality into the realistic narrative, without any core characters to whom I could relate or with whom I could empathize. It’s been only a year and a half since I read it and I’d have a hard time telling you what it was about.

Her last novel, Wise Children, is completely different in everything but prose style – but here the almost Proustian prolixity is far more effective, as it reflects the effusive, vivacious personality of the narrator, Dora Chance. Dora and Nora are twins, the illegitimate offspring of the stage actor Melchior Hazard (I trust you’ve noticed these surnames already), who grow up in and around the theatre and whose lives intersect regularly with those of their biological father, their uncle Peregrine who pretends to be their father when he’s not wandering the globe, and Melchior’s various wives and other children, the latter of whom also come in pairs. The book is a bawdy, boozy, life-affirming comedy, told by Dora as she, her sister, and Melchior’s first wife, the Lady Atalanta, prepare to attend Melchior’s one hundredth birthday party.

Carter employs a ton of wordplay in the book, with double meanings, allusions, and rhyming. Referring to a little closet where a lost cask is found at one point, she has Dora call it “the place where the missus could stow away the master if the master came home plastered.” Her prose is musical, and the puns can be auditory or visual (Peregine calling his nieces “copperknobs,” a deviation from the British slang term for a redhead “coppernob,” and then referring to them getting the “key to the door” when they turn eighteen). I’m sure I only caught a fraction of the references to Shakespeare, English poetry, Greek mythology, and more.

The narrative itself is also unorthodox; it’s written like a memoir, but Dora can’t exactly walk a straight line (unsurprising, given her self-professed alcohol intake) when delving into the past, and her reliability is questionable – or Carter is employing a little magical realism, especially when Peregrine is involved. Much of the comedy is situational, as Carter weaves a web of love/hate relationships among the various half-siblings, parents, uncles, and associates, complete with mistaken identities and the Chances taking advantage of others’ inability to tell them apart. There’s a lot of booze, a lot of sex, and a fair amount of confusion over who is actually the father of each set of twins – much of that fostered by Melchior himself, as his interest in fatherhood is directly tied to its utility in his stage career.

This book appeared on the Guardian‘s list of the top 100 novels of all time, rather than Nights at the Circus, and although that opinion seems contrarian I’d have to agree with it. This is more accessible, funnier, and far more engaging. I’d challenge anyone who reads this to not adore the Chances, who make effrontery their primary coping mechanism in a world that would often rather forget their existence, and who turn the randomness of life into a series of opportunities. It wouldn’t make my top 100 novels list, but it is an incredibly fun, erudite book that regularly had me laughing out loud.

Next up: I’ve got 100 pages to go in Dan Vyleta’s Smoke.

Waiting for the Barbarians.

I’d sort of avoided J.M. Coetzee for a while, given his reputation for dark, depressing themes; one of his two Booker Prize-winning novels, Disgrace, involves rape as a significant plot point more than once in the book. I was in a used book store in Manhattan in June, however, and saw Waiting for the Barbarians, which made the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels ever written, on the shelf for a few bucks, and figured at 156 pages it would at least be over quickly if I hated it – and maybe it would surprise me. I can’t see it as a top 100 all-time novel, but I got more out of the book than I expected, as it’s a fable that seems to combine some of the best of Italo Calvino and Kazuo Ishiguro (the latter of whom won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as did Coetzee), in a work that I’d call the better Darkness at Noon.

The story is set in an unnamed frontier town at the edge of the Empire, where the main character, the Magistrate, has served his country for some years when a Colonel arrives and “interrogates” some prisoners, including a father and son, about the activities of nearby barbarians who might threaten the town or the Empire itself. The Magistrate is dubious about the actual level of the threat, and is disgusted by the Colonel’s use of torture, which kills one of the prisoners and leads to questionable answers – likely the ones that the Colonel wanted anyway to justify a military effort against the barbarians. When the first effort yields a new set of prisoners, who are further tortured, the Magistrate takes pity on one woman among them who’s been blinded by the Colonel’s men. This decision and a journey to eventually return her to her people pits the Magistrate against the Colonel, who declares him a traitor and makes him a political prisoner and pariah in his own town.

Waiting for the Barbarians was first published in October of 1980, winning the James Tait Memorial Prize for that year, but it certainly seems to presage the United States’ two invasions of Iraq (1991 and 2003), especially the latter which, as we now know, was predicated on questionable intelligence about the Iraqi regime’s possession of or attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Coetzee’s use of nameless towns and characters only emphasizes its fabulist, universal nature; he’s discussing core features of leaders who operate without viable opposition and exposing how functionaries may work to provide the answers desired by their superiors rather than the correct or just ones. Coetzee exposes the worst of humanity here, but it’s all well-grounded in actual events that preceded the book’s writing, in dictatorships and democracies.

I read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, considered one of the peak novels of anti-communist literature, back in 2008, but couldn’t connect with any of the characters and found the narrative to be distant and cold. Coetzee infuses the Magistrate with more complexity; he’s flawed, a little bigoted, or at least mistrustful, but also highly empathetic, and less disdainful of women than the government officials or soldiers who come to the village and do as they please. The submissive response of the residents of the town, who seemed to respect the Magistrate until the Empire turned on him and labeled him a traitor, mirrors the inaction of many residents of past aggressors, including the Axis powers of World War II, who stood by while their neighbors were arrested, tortured, or murdered. The Magistrate seems to hope that if he stands up for what he believes to be just, others will support him; instead, people he thought were his friends act as if he’s not even there, until later in the novel when the tides shift the other way again and it’s safer to come out on his side.

This is a very grim worldview, but it’s an accurate one, and the 37 years since the book’s publication haven’t dulled its (deckled) edges one iota. Leaders continue to provoke conflicts and pursue wars on spurious grounds to distract their citizens or stage some patriotism theater. Had Coetzee made the Magistrate more of a one-dimensional martyr, it would have come at a great cost to the story’s staying power, but because his protagonist is so thoroughly human, it seems like a story that, while depressingly real, will have staying power for decades to come.

Next up: Angela Carter’s Wise Children, also on that Guardian list.

The New York Trilogy.

Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy is a collection of three novellas that are just barely connected enough that I would call this one novel, although it certainly bends the boundaries of the form. Each part starts out as a detective story, but turns into something else entirely, exploring questions of identity and meaning, with the three protagonists devolving into madness as their “cases” go awry. The work appears on the Guardian‘s 2003 list of the hundred greatest novels ever written, which is the only reason I even knew of its existence.

The first novella, City of Glass, covers a writer named Daniel Quinn who works under a pseudonym, William Wilson, about a detective named Max Work. Quinn gets a strange call one night asking for the detective Paul Auster, and after dismissing the first call, receives another one a few nights later and decides to play along, pretending to be Auster and taking on the case, which involves protecting a young man, Peter Stillman, from his abusive father as the latter is about to be released from prison. Peter speaks in a unique, stilted fashion, the result of the abuse his father, who was gripped by a sort of religious mania, put him through. Quinn decides to take the job, following the father, also named Peter Stillman, from Grand Central Station on the day of his release to the flophouse where he settles, eventually forcing a meeting with the older man, while also tracking down Paul Auster, the writer (not a detective), who is working himself on an article on the narrator character of Don Quixote. Quinn assumes the identity of the Auster-detective and goes undercover to an absurd extent, such that the case gets away from him and he begins to lose his own sense of self.

Ghosts, the shortest of the three acts, covers a detective named Blue, who is hired by the unseen White to stake out a target named Black. Every character has a color for his/her name – sometimes just part of the name, sometimes that’s all we get – but Blue, like Quinn in the first story, veers off the path, as he finds that watching Black day in and day out seems increasingly pointless, and eventually he decides to try to stalk White and find out what the purpose of the assignment is. It doesn’t go well, as you might imagine.

The Locked Room has the most conventional narrative of the three stories, and works less like a detective story and more like a psychological study. The unnamed narrator finds out that his childhood friend Fanshawe, with whom he’s had no contact for a decade, has disappeared, asking his wife to contact the narrator if he doesn’t reappear within a certain length of time and to have the narrator look through his collected writings. Fanshawe’s unpublished works turn out to be critical masterpieces and become commercially successful enough to allow the narrator, who quickly falls for and marries Fanshawe’s wife, to walk away from his own life and become Fanshawe’s agent, of a sort, as the steward of his friend’s various works. Of course, Fanshawe isn’t dead, and the narrator can’t leave well enough alone, especially once rumors start that Fanshawe is just a fabrication, so he tries to track his friend down despite explicit instructions not to do so. The resolution of this ties the three stories together in an unexpected and (by design) incomplete fashion, which I would argue makes the three novellas together a single work of narrative fiction despite the incongruities between stories.

Postmodern with metafictional elements, The New York Trilogy plays with layers of reality to push the three protagonists through varying levels of internal and external rebellion, against their senses of self and against the perception that they lack free will in a universe that is forcing action upon them. Blue and the nameless narrator both try to find the scriptwriters directing their lives. Quinn, himself an author, is presented with an entirely new script, but becomes obsessed with its narrative to the point that he completely loses himself, as if he’s playing a role that consumes him. In all three stories, Auster gives us less-than-reliable narrators and causes to doubt whether the antagonists or their backstories are real. Even when he unites the three narratives in the last few pages of The Locked Room (with a few scattered hints before that), the truth remains ambiguous – it’s possible that the stories all share a character, or that a character from one story created one of the others. It’s a work that asks questions without answering them, but still manages to grab the reader with the detective-novel paradigm and determination (if not entirely hinged) of its lead characters. I’m a devoted fan of noir detective fiction; this might be more gris than noir, but it works well with its foundation.

Next up: I’m reviewing out of order, but I’m currently on Frederik Pohl’s Hugo & Nebula Award-winning novel Gateway.

The Count of Monte Cristo.

I’ve been lax in book blogging lately, between year-end lists and a run of longer reads (a few of which were duds) and the mystery/detective novels I don’t review unless it’s by an author I haven’t discussed before. The one loooong read that’s worth a mention here is Alexandre Dumas’ (père, which I won’t mention again because it’s not like anyone remembers anything his son wrote) The Count of Monte Cristo, which surpassed Gone with the Wind as the longest novel I’ve ever read. It’s on the Bloomsbury and Guardian top 100 lists, and while it didn’t have the same chewy center as Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, it was still a fun and surprisingly rapid read.

Edmond Dantes is the Count of the title, although as the story opens he’s just an amiable young sailor, about to marry the girl of his dreams and earn a big promotion on the boat where he works, all of which pisses off his two main rivals in love and at sea. Those two conspire with a third man to ruin Dantes by a letter falsely accusing him of treason, which, thanks to a corrupt prosecutor looking to save his own hide, lands Dantes in a notorious prison, jailed without trial or even knowing the charge, with no hope of release or leniency.

After fourteen years in captivity, Dantes manages an escape (one of the book’s highlights), finds great wealth via his only friend in prison, and resurrects himself as The Count of Monte Cristo. This mysterious saint-like figure has infinite wealth and uses it to spare people in need, many of whom fail to recognize their former friend or rival after his long absence and changed appearance. Now 33, the Count plays the longest con of all, plotting to ruin the lives of the men who tried to ruin his and mostly succeeded. Over the course of maybe 300,000 words, about the length of three typical novels, Dantes lays elaborate traps for the three men most responsible for his plight, but, as you’d expect, runs into a few unforeseen complications that provoke introspection and self-doubt to let Dumas pad the ol’ word count a little further.

A superficial read of The Count of Monte Cristo as the mother of all revenge stories (which, by the way, is based on the true story of a Frenchman who did a lot of what Dantes did, just without all the cash) would still be time well spent. Dumas had the knack for building tension without seeming false, then providing huge, satisfying resolutions that are plausible within the confines of the story. If you accept the premise of Dantes obtaining an endless supply of money, then much of what comes afterwards is surprisingly realistic for a novel of the romantic/traditional period. Dumas paints the three targets as awful people, and you’ll find yourself rooting for him to give them what for. Even when there’s collateral damage, Dantes endeavors to make things right – money allows a vengeful man to be more precise – to keep the reader happy that no women or children will be unduly harmed in the reading of this novel.

Of course, you could also wring enough symbolism out of this book to send the Seine spilling over its banks, staring with Dantes himself coming back from the dead – or a stone crypt of sorts – at age 33, just like Jesus Christ. Dantes even believes himself to be sent by God, or an instrument of God to spread good fortune to those who deserve it and to crush those who would do or have done evil in the past (to him, that is). He’s not Jesus, but he’s Jesus-like, in the literary sense, which I imagine has been fodder for countless term papers and college theses.

Dantes is not perturbed by the thought of being used by a benevolent Deity to bring ill fortune or even death on those who have done others harm until after he’s nearly completed his scorched-earth campaign from Provence to Paris. He even acquires a coterie of servants and acolytes and helps them obtain revenge they were unaware they could achieve, again with little thought to whether these acts were, in themselves, evil, or at least un-Christian. The twisted theology of the Count, coupled with his monomaniacal pursuit of vengeance, might have rendered him more insane than saintly; there is no potential for forgiveness or a commutation of the sentences Dantes plans to deliver. Even though the men who wronged him don’t deserve clemency and continue to act without regard for the well-being of others, Dantes goes way too long – years, at least – before experiencing anything like remorse for his own ruthlessness in smiting his enemies.

I wouldn’t say I’m likely to reread the book, but it might be a more fruitful read to consider it as Dantes’ search for meaning, the development of his own philosophy of life. He enters the prison believing he knows all that matters, and leaves it full of practical knowledge but emotionally void other than his wish for vengeance. Through years of wealth, of making others’ dreams come true, of ruining lives that were probably worth ruining but also ruining a few others in the process, the Count arrives at a very different mental state than the one he held at the start of the book. He never monologues but does offer hints at his newfound philosophical leaning, such as:

“There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more.”

There’s some ambiguity in the end of The Count of Monte Cristo, but with hints that Dantes intends to retire from public life, in a somewhat monastic sense, which would provide a clever parallel to his time in prison, where he was deprived of almost everything except for the companionship of the abbe in the next cell. Dumas recognizes that you can’t bring a life full circle because Dantes can’t undo all the damage done. Instead, he gives Dantes satisfaction enough to sail off into the novel’s sunset, unfulfilled emotionally but at least bearing the pride of a twenty-year-old task completed.

* Two wonderful quotes about food from this book, the first describing what we know recognize as umami, the “fifth taste” found in foods high in glutamates:

“Tell me, the first time you tasted oysters, tea, porter, truffles, and sundry other dainties which you now adore, did you like them?”

And the second, a serious line that reads as a joke now, one that could only have been penned by a Frenchman:

“condemned to partake of Italian cookery—that is, the worst in the world.”

* Euphemisms for death abound in every language, and, along with euphemisms for sex, show tremendous creativity. Dumas offers one I hadn’t seen before, with one character asking if anther has “paid the last debt of nature?”

* I mentioned reading a few duds that didn’t merit writeups. Two were from the Bloomsbury list – Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, a fable about two men who choose widely divergent paths in search of enlightenment, and Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale, a romantic (in the traditional sense) novel about two sisters with widely divergent personalities who live separate, different lives but end up in the same place. I also read Anne Tyler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Breathing Lessons, which is just a bad Richard Russo book. Next up: Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, a 1991 book by Jostein Gaarder.

Little Women.

I’ve been busy this weekend, with Insider posts reacting to the Jhonny Peralta signing with St. Louis and the Brian McCann signing with the Yankees. I’ll continue posting reaction pieces as needed this week. I’ll also post an updated “gift guide for cooks” piece here on Monday.

I actually read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when I was in third grade or so, as it was one of a series of abridged, illustrated classics I’d been tearing through as fast as my parents could buy them. I remembered the basics of most of the plots, including Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Terror (“The Telltale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Junebug,” and, surprisingly for a book aimed at kids, “The Cask of Amontillado”), as well as bits and pieces of Alcott’s book – enough to understand that episode of Friends when it aired.

I didn’t think that version of Little Women counted for the purposes of reading the entire Bloomsbury 100, so I tackled the adult version last week. (The book also appears on the Guardian top 100 list.) I knew the book would be sentimental and more geared toward female readers, but I was surprised by many elements of it. There’s a latent feminist streak in it, one that at least treats its female characters as independent-minded individuals, equal to the men in spirit if not in the eyes of society, although in the end the women do settle in one way or another for marriage and motherhood. That feminist bent was quickly overshadowed by the rising tide of feminist novels where gender inequality led to tragedy, like The Awakening, Madame Bovary, and Effi Briest, so Alcott’s feminism feels very dated today.

However, the novel also represents a different twist on the utopian novels of the time period; rather than describing a future, technical utopia, Alcott instead presents a version of her contemporary world only tangentially affected by the ills of the age. The four little women of the title are the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their father is serving as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War, leaving them in tight circumstances but not poverty, which is something they see but don’t experience. Their father is wounded, but returns home and survives, another example of tragedy coming close but not hitting home. Across the two parts of the book – it was published in two volumes, the second coming after the first had proven a resounding commercial success – only one significant tragedy visits the March household, that in the second book and with enough advance warning to the reader that by the time it happens it’s almost cathartic. Rather than depict life as it should or might be, the type of fantastic scenario you’d find in News from Nowhere or Looking Backward, Alcott gives us life as we’d like it to be: Full of love and happiness, without serious setbacks or disasters, where most of our worries end up for nothing at all.

There’s also a coming-of-age element to Little Women that I don’t recall seeing in any earlier novel, at least not in English or American literature, where the subject was female. Boys in literature came of age; girls got married to those boys as needed. Alcott gives her girls life, with distinct personalities and differing aims. Each has some rite of passage in the first book, all of which influences their fates in the second. The one character who stuck with me most when I read the book as a child still stood out today, as Jo was Alcott’s stand-in for herself, a wilful, clever girl, forebear to Dorothea of Middlemarch (who had Jo’s intellectual bent but ruined herself in a bad marriage), and by the end of Little Women its most essential character. I wondered as a kid if the presence of a character named Jo on the series The Facts of Life, which (after Jo’s arrival) focused on four teenaged girls living together at a boarding school, was an homage to Alcott’s book, especially as both girls shared tomboyish looks and attitudes and had the same dislike of societal rules and authority.

Next up: I knocked off H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds last week, having heard the Orson Welles broadcast but never read the book, and am now a third of the way through another Bloomsbury 100 title, Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund.

Kipps and Dangerous Liaisons.

Last week’s ESPN content included a look at a few top prospects who were called up and a Klawchat. I also contributed to the new Future Power Rankings by naming a “new #GUY” prospect for each system, ignoring players who were just drafted in June or who were previously on my top 50/100.

I’d only read one H.G. Wells novel, his sci-fi/social commentary classic The Time Machine, before encountering Kipps The Story of a Simple Soul on the Bloomsbury 100. Another novel of deep social criticism, Kipps represents Wells’ attack on the gulf between haves and have-nots in late 19th century England while simultaneously rejecting socialism as a solution, wrapped in the envelope of a rags-to-riches-to-rags romance that works effectively on its own and as a delivery mechanism for Wells’ polemics.

Kipps himself is Arthur “Artie” Kipps, who has been shipped off by his mother (with his father unknown) to be raised by his Puritanical and simple-minded aunt and uncle. While attending a useless primary school, he falls in love with Ann, the sister of his best friend Sid, only to lose track of her when he begins his apprenticeship as a draper at age 14. The drudgery and limited outlook for working-class children sent into this sort of indentured servitude comes under Wells’ fire, as does the factory system’s wide latitude for employers to cheat their helpless employees. Kipps ends up the recipient of a windfall inheritance, seeking then to raise himself up above his lower-class upbringing, yet also struggling with questions of moral responsibility associated with his newfound wealth, many raised by the minor character Masterman – an ardent socialist dying of tuberculosis. Kipps’ fortune disappears almost as quickly as he obtained it, and it is in his response to this turn of events that his inner character emerges from the facade of the semi-polished and utterly superficial Kipps of the book’s middle section.

Wells wrote Kipps with a satirist’s pen, mocking people with wealth and power at every turn yet never sparing those poor in all but ideas. Masterman’s polemics on capitalism are somewhat undercut by Wells’ decision to make the novel’s one socialist – or its only real philosopher of any sort – terminally ill with a disease known at the time as “consumption.” Kipps’ sudden acquisition of wealth changes the way nearly everyone in his life treats him, turning many supporting characters into comic relief, while also throwing him into many situations he finds embarrassing that are also send-ups of the circumstances that created them, such as a scene in the fine restaurant of the hotel he’s inhabiting, where walking in with the wrong shoes is just the first of his problems. The reader can only feel badly for Kipps, who is a stranger in the strange land of privilege, while scorning the various aristocrats who’d look down on him for his naivete.

The romance plot is the overarching storyline in the book, covering Kipps from childhood till the point when he loses his fortune (in predictable, but yet somewhat amusing fashion), even though it functions as a subplot under the more academic themes relating to Kipps’ career and time as one of the idle rich. Kipps’ childhood romance with Ann lasts until he turns 14 and leaves for a career in fabric, after which he ends up with a crush on the more sophisticated Helen Walsingham, who views him sympathetically but without much interest until his inheritance turns up. The way in which Kipps acquires that money doesn’t fit neatly into either plot line, but also provides one of the book’s most entertaining passages, particularly because the non-drinker Kipps goes on a lengthy bender that leads to an improbable connection to the lost money, while leading into a lengthy fish-out-of-water passage where Kipps flops and flounders his way through upper-class society.

Wells mimics lower-class speech in Kipps’ dialogue, with liaisons like “a nactor” for “an actor” and elisions like “mis’bel” for “miserable,” which can make reading the text a little slower, but he more than makes up for it with direct, modern prose that avoids the sluggishness that I’ve encountered in some of the other Bloomsbury 100 novels, even contemporaries of Kipps. It’s funny, cutting, sweet, and still quite relevant in a time of rising income inequality in capitalist societies yet in a world where socialist economies have failed.

I also knocked out Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel Dangerous Liaisons*, which appears on both the Bloomsbury and Guardian lists, although it took a solid week to get through the tedious prose and absurdly long letters between the main characters. Focusing on a romantic rivalry between the rake the Viscomte de Valmont and his quondam paramour the Marquise de Merteuil, both gleefully free of morals and engaged in multiple intrigues simultaneously. Their rivalry leads Valmont to “seduce” (rape, in modern terms) the 15-year-old ingenue Cécile de Volanges, which in turns sets their mutual downfall in motion.

*Not to be confused with “Dangeresque Liaisons.”

For a work involving sex (most of it of the consensual variety) and betrayal, Dangerous Liaisons is a plodding read, as the entire book comprises letters between the various characters floridly describing what they just did, or what they might do next, or (in Cécile’s case) what they would just like to do. I assume Laclos was moralizing in two ways, over promiscuity/infidelity but also over those who treat others as mere pawns for their own gains or pleasures, as both Valmont and Merteuil treat multiple lovers (or victims) in this way over the course of the novel. Yet Laclos makes the novel so one-sided that it fast becomes boring, in the way that Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward wears out its welcome with sermonizing on how the world should be.

I haven’t seen the Academy Award-nominated adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons (a film adapted from a play adapted from a novel) starring John Malkovich (really?) as the roué Valmont, but I did watch the 1989 adaptation Valmont, with the far more believable Colin Firth in the role of the cad. That version altered the ending far too much to be considered a reasonable adaptation, crafting happy-ish endings for several characters and avoiding the more serious aspects of the novel’s depictions of Valmont and Merteuil (played by Annette Bening, also a solid casting choice).

Next up: Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, another selection from the Bloomsbury 100, and a novel that has appeared on at least two lists of the most important novels in the German canon.

The Brothers Karamazov.

Ah, children, ah, dear friends, don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something good and just!

I thought I’d like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov a lot more than I actually did. I loved Crime and Punishment and at least enjoyed the prose of Notes from Underground, while several of you said you thought I’d like Karamazov given what other novels I’ve said I like.

The plot is quite straightforward for a novel of about 900 pages. The three brothers of the title all vary widely in temperament and philosophy: Dmitri (also called Mitya), the hedonistic, hotheaded eldest brother; the Ivan, the dour, academic, atheist middle brother; and Alyosha, the gentle, highly religious youngest brother. The three are tied together by their father, the cold, profligate Fyodor Karamazov, who had two wives and may have fathered a fourth son, Smerdyakov, out of wedlock. Fyodor has little to with raising his sons, and no emotional connection to them, but is tied to them by questions of inheritance and social standing.

Dmitri’s womanizing eventually brings him into conflict with his father when the two pursue the same woman, while Dmitri also finds himself forced to turn to his family for money, leading to a dispute between Dmitry and his father over the former’s inheritance. When Fyodor is found murdered, Dmitry, who has vowed to kill his father before, is arrested and charged with the crime; Ivan ends up descending into madness while trying to esablish his brother’s guilt or innocence; and Alyosha, after leaving the monastery where he was a novice, ends up a sort of friend and mentor to Kolya, the brash leader of a group of local kids.

The novel’s length allows Dostoevsky to include a few subplots, such as Alyosha and Kolya, but the bulk of the novel is taken up by long passages such as the multi-chapter arc of Dmitri’s trial (in which Dostoevsky took aim at several highly publicized trials of the era, including one where the attorney defending a man accused of nearly beating his daughter to death humiliated the six-year-old victim on the stand). Another chapter has Ivan relating a parable he wrote, “The Grand Inquisitor,” to his brother Alyosha, expounding on Ivan’s questioning of the possibility of a benevolent, personal God, and the associated questions of free will and individual liberty. The story itself, which depicts a Spanish Inquisitor interrogating Jesus Christ after the latter returns to earth, leaves its ultimate meaning open to interpretation, fitting with the philosophical ambuigities of the novel as a whole.

Dostoevsky’s prose is actually quite easy to read, even though, like many Russian novelists, his sentences are long and he often veers from the main point. But I think my main problem with the book was that I could not get into the central philosophical conflict at the heart of the novel. Dmitri’s trial has some drama, as it’s not clear whether he’s guilty, but it is so long and drawn-out that his guilt is beside the point, as Dostoevsky seems to be offering his views on the jury trial itself, which was relatively new to Russia at the time the novel was published. Dostoevsky waxed extensively on similar questions of faith and freedom in Crime and Punishment while also delving into the nature of evil, and doing so in a novel that’s just over half of the length of this one, making it a more fluid read and also attacking the philosophical questions more effectively.

One bit I did enjoy was the substantial amount of dry, often dark humor in the novel, such as the comment about a European nose specialist who “can only cure your right nostril” and sends the patient to Vienna for a specialist who deals with left noses, or the devil, visiting Ivan in a hallucination, pointing out that, in hell, “we’ve adopted the metric system, you know.” More of that would have made the book more compelling for me, although I imagine Dostoevsky was using humor primarily for satire purposes, not for laughs.

I feel like I should emphasize here this is a matter of personal preference – I’m not questioning the book’s legacy or place in the historical canon. It’s 5th on the Novel 100, 29th on the Guardian 100, and part of the Bloomsbury 100 I mentioned in Thursday’s chat, and has been cited as a heavy influence by numerous later authors from across the world. It’s a very ambitious novel, and I imagine a difficult one to conceive and write because of how much Dostoevsky was trying to express through dialogue without the benefit of action. Unfortunately, it left me wanting something more substantial; as easy as it was to move through the novel, I was never fully engaged by any of the stories or by the characters. Perhaps it’s my own tastes, and perhaps the novel just read as dated to me, but it wouldn’t make my personal top 100.

Of course, it’s just possible that the Bluths are the Karamazovs and everything suddenly makes sense.

Next up: I read Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which is 7th on the Guardian 100, 32nd on the Novel 100, and on the Bloomsbury 100, after Karamazov. It’s bawdy and funny, full of explicit sexual humor and double entendres, but the language is so different from modern English that I found it hard to read and occasionally hard to follow. I’m now about a quarter of the way through H.G. Wells’ Kipps, which is also on the Bloomsbury 100.

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.

Money: A Suicide Note.

Here’s another piece about that chick who’s dying in her teens because, according to the Line, she’s allergic to the twentieth century. Poor kid … Well I have my problems too, sister, but I don’t have yours. I’m not allergic to the twentieth century. I am addicted to the twentieth century.

Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note, which appeared on the TIME 100 and at #90 on the Guardian 100, is a hilarious modern picaresque novel that marries crude, over-the-top humor with serious themes of materialism and modern identity as well as a healthy dose of metafiction that called to mind Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.

The protagonist of Money, John Self, is an English director of TV adverts who is tabbed by Fielding Goodney to write the treatment for a new feature film titled Good Money, except when it’s instead titled Bad Money, although the film within the film is largely a Macguffin, with a plot that sounds comically awful but allows Amis to work in several caricatures of Hollywood actors and actresses. Self does very little actual work, spending most of his time drinking, whoring, masturbating, and spending gobs of money that Fielding provides, promising that there’s always more to be had. Along the way we meet Self’s live-in, transparently gold-digging girlfriend; his even more transparently dodgy father; and a number of friends and business acquaintances who may only tolerate Self because he serves as their connection to money.

Money is the true central character in Money even if it never has a line of dialogue. Characters are treated differently based on how much money they have; the more Self has at his disposal, the more doors open for him in the boardroom and the bedroom. When the money runs out, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that it does at one point, Self undergoes an existential crisis but still can’t let go of the dream of more money around the corner. And that question of identity – who are we without our things, or without our ability to do or buy more things, in an age of rampant materialism – fit the times in which the book was written (the 1980s, with the action in the book happening in the leadup to the last big royal wedding) but seem just as applicable today. Self himself comes to take the money for granted; there’s certainly no accounting going on, and he just assumes its supply is infinite and that he’s entitled to it, even though he’s doing little to no actual work within the book.

The humor, meanwhile, is decidedly lowbrow, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Self gets drunk, falls down, embarrasses himself, starts fights, deals with a stalker, cheats on the women he’s using to cheat on his girlfriend, says awful things, and blacks out on a regular basis. Amis is clearly a fan of creating silly character names in the P.G. Wodehouse tradition, and inserts himself into the book as a novelist who annoys Self and ends up working on the script to Good Money, while portraying the language of the slovenly, sodden Self (as narrator) as you might expect from the son of a great author who enjoyed a good tipple.

There was one line that struck me as familiar in a coincidental way – when Self says (of his time in a pub on one of his many benders, “I play the spacegames and the fruit-machines,” the song “Faded Glamour” by Animals That Swim came to mind with its line about “You tell me about cheap tequila/Place names and food machines.” I have no idea whether they’re connected, although I always thought the back half of that line might have been lost in translation.

Next up: I’ve already finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and just started Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic.

The U.S.A. Trilogy.

My Cliff Lee analysis from last night is up for Insiders, as is a piece from earlier on Monday on Scott Downs, Brendan Ryan, and Ryan Theriot, featuring a TOOTBLAN reference.

John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy – The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money – is considered a landmark in American fiction, ranking 68th on the Novel 100, 23rd on the Modern Library 100, and 55th on the Brit-lit-skewed Guardian 100. Leading literary lights from Jean-Paul Sartre to Norman Mailer have praised Dos Passos’ writing in U.S.A. and the influence the work had in bringing modernism to the American novel. Taken in sum, this series of interconnected stories presents a panoramic view of the United States from the start of the Great War to the end of the Roaring 20s, where the main character is the scene and setting rather than any individual in the book. It’s not an easy read – more on that in a moment – but it is an important read if you read as a student rather than just for pleasure. (Not that there’s anything wrong with reading just for pleasure, of course.)

(Aside: The Novel 100 is back in print after several years out of it. The book, by literature professor Daniel Burt, ranks the 100 greatest novels ever written with an essay on each, and features a bonus, unranked list of the “second 100” after those. It’s been a great reading list for me, and I enjoy Burt’s analyses and comments on each book’s influence, even if I don’t always agree with his selections.)

Each book in the trilogy includes lengthy chapters following a dozen or so characters whose lives intertwine and whose paths cross with major historical figures, such as the young idealist who ends up working publicity on the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti. These chapters, heavy on descriptive prose, are bookended by two types of mini-chapters, the Newsreel and “The Camera Eye.” The former is a list of clipped fragments from newspaper and magazine articles of the time, anchoring you to a specific year or month while also setting up some of the emotional framework for the chapter to follow; the latter is a somewhat indecipherable stream-of-consciousness, worm’s-eye view of society that I found myself skimming because it gave me bad memories of struggling through Ulysses last winter. Dos Passos also inserts short, stylized biographies of important Americans of the time period, from Henry Ford to Woodrow Wilson to Frederick Taylor to now-forgotten names like dancer Isadora Duncan and labor activist Joe Hill, written with an opinionated voice that also seeks to inform.

Dos Passos also based large chunks of the books on his own experiences in World War I as part of the volunteer ambulance corps in Paris – a role that seems to have required a lot more drinking and carousing than actual ambulance-driving, but one that also seems to have fueled the book’s derogatory portraits of upper-class American twits in Europe, chasing money or skirts or good times while there was a war going on around them.

What I didn’t like about U.S.A. was the lack of a central story, or even set of stories. The existential nature of the trilogy means characters wink in and out of the book and Dos Passos gives a lot of time to mundane matters without investing the reader at all in anyone’s fate or happiness – because, I presume, that wasn’t his point. Dos Passos set out to provide a slice of life, and I’m not sure any American writer has done it better – but it makes for a more academic read than a leisurely one, a trilogy you might pick up to help you better follow the transition in American literature from the 1920s to the 1940s, but not something you’re going to grab to get you through your next long plane ride.

My other regret about U.S.A. is that Dos Passos didn’t use more dialogue, because he was pretty sharp with it and could have given more depth to his characters just by having them speak more often, such as in this banter from 1919 regarding the League of Nations:

“It’s not the name you give things, it’s who’s getting theirs underneath that counts,” said Robbins.
“That’s a very cynical remark,” said the California woman. “This isn’t any time to be cynical.”
“This is a time,” said Robbins, “when if we weren’t cynical we’d shoot ourselves.”

Baseball does come up a few times in the book, as one character is a serious fan (right around the time of the Black Sox scandal, after which baseball earns scant mention – you’d think Babe Ruth would show up in some Newsreels, right?) while the section in The Big Money on Frederick Taylor claims that

At Exeter he was head of his class and captain of the ballteam, the first man to pitch overhand. (When umpires complained that overhand pitching wasn’t in the rules of the game, he answered that it got results.)

And if you’re into food, U.S.A. introduced me to “smearcase,” which can refer to a sort of farmer’s or cottage cheese among the Pennsylvania Dutch, but which in the Baltimore area refers to something more akin to cheesecake. (The name comes from the German Schmierkäse, meaning smear-cheese.)

Next up: I’ve finished Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister and am most of the way through Dawn Powell’s Turn, Magic Wheel. Both authors are among my favorite American writers, Chandler for his phenomenal prose, Powell for her sardonic wit.