Confusion – Stefan Zweig

Editorial note: there will be spoilers in the penultimate paragraph of this post as it is impossible to express my concerns with this novella otherwise. With the understanding that some people disapprove of such reveals even in a ninety year old book, I have kept these until the very end..

This was the first real shock that, at the age of nineteen, I experienced—without a word spoken in anger, it overthrew the whole grandiose house of cards I had built during the last three months, a house constructed out of masculinity, student debauchery and bragging.

Zweig’s Confusion—not a direct translation of the original title—is a novella published first in 1927 that I am of two minds about, one that deeply appreciates some of its psychological observations and graceful structure, and one that is deeply troubled by its politics. In form, Confusion is an eminent professor reflecting on his intellectual life on the occasion of his Festschrift, a publication that memorializes and celebrates his career. Far from the parade of successes that the accompanying biography records, Roland, the professor, recalls a time when he was far more interested in women than in his studies and how he ended up attending a rural university away from the temptations of Berlin. Thus he says:

Everything it says is true—only what genuinely matters is missing. It merely describes me, it says nothing real about me.

It is at this rural university that Roland is mesmerized by the passion of an old English professor who awakens his intellectual curiosity.

Soon, the professor helps set Roland up in the building where he lives with his wife and Roland offers to help the professor by taking dictation on his magnum opus: a history of the English drama in the age of the Globe Theater. The two begin to work on the project diligently, but Roland finds the professor difficult to work with; some days the professor is hale and strong, other times distant and cruel, while still others he is absent altogether. It is during one of these intervals that Roland ends up involved with the professor’s wife.

The heart of Confusion is the relationship between Roland and the couple who live below him, that is, the professor and his wife. The former is Roland’s intellectual father, while the latter takes on the roles of mother, lover, and reminder of his past insecurities.

Zweig’s greatest strengths unfold in the turns in Roland’s relationships. He shows how a student might have limitless potential and how a teacher can (in some cases) change a person’s trajectory, but, even more importantly, Zweig builds into the structure the idea that an intellectual career does not unfold in terms of linear successes. Confusion in this regard is an excellent, subtle coming of age story.

And yet, I had deep reservations about Confusion that far outweigh any I have had about his other work. The dramatic climax in Confusion comes when Roland is tearing himself up over his transgression with the professor’s wife, only to discover that his advisor professes to have no control over what she does, just as she has no control over him. Far from a modern sense of an open marriage, the professor reveals in so many words that he is gay. This revelation fills in the gaps as to the snide comments people had been making about Roland’s relationship with the professor, but my problem wasn’t either this or the suggestion that he was working in oblivion at a rural school because of his sexual tendencies. My issue came in how the professor describes himself to Roland, in that he talks about both the joys and the challenges of constantly being surrounded by young, attractive, and vibrant young men and that it was for this reason that he sometimes went absent. As a plot device it worked well-enough, but it was both a regressive representation of homosexuality and troubling in terms of how it linked intellectual and sexual relationships. Moreover, I found it distasteful because of how it would have played had it been a male professor and female student, which is already a topic in the realm of troubling issues of gender politics on campus.

I don’t want to diminish Zweig’s accomplishments in Confusion. From the outset, I often found myself nodding appreciatively at his observations, but, as the trajectory of the plot became increasingly clear, I became increasingly soured on the entire story.

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I also recently finished N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms, the second book in her Inheritance Trilogy and am currently reading Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade.

The Republic of Wine – Mo Yan

Experienced detective Ding Gou’er does not really know what to expect when he travels to Liquorland on assignment. He is there to investigate unsavory rumors coming out of this region where, allegedly, the people are feasting on the flesh of children and washing it down with their fabled alcoholic beverages. (Local officials insist that the food is only crafted to look human.) Inspector Ding Gou’er (not much of a drinker, we are told) needs to keep his wits about him, but neither can he dare insult the local officials and so finds himself deeply intoxicated by an abundance of toasts. Worse still, Ding Gou’er quickly learns of the local appetites for flesh in all its guises, sexual, sensual, or gustatory, finding himself in debate with Yu Yishi, a dwarf whose stated goal is sexual conquest of all the regional beauties and in bed with the beautiful wife of a local official. Are the poor of Liquorland bearing children in order to supply the culinary academy with “Meat Boys,” or is that just a story told by a local writer with too much alcohol and an overactive imagination? In either case, the environment of Liquorland has a powerfully deleterious effect on the (formerly) respectable inspector.

The corruption of Ding Gou’er, however, represents only one of the three narrative threads that form The Republic of Wine. The other two threads consist of the ongoing epistolary relationship between the eminent author Mo Yan and his younger contemporary Li Yidou, doctoral candidate of liquor studies at Brewer’s College in Liquorland, and the stories written by the latter author. Most of their correspondence involves Mo Yan’s critique of Li Yidou’s stories and their plans to bring Mo Yan to Liquorland to write the biography of a dwarf Yu Yishi, which Mo Yan can only do after completing his latest novel The Republic of Wine. At no point do you read Mo Yan’s novel because, of course, that is what the entire book is. Each chapter in The Republic of Wine consists of all three narrative elements that create a deep discussion about life in Liquorland (a.k.a. a fictional stand-in for modern China), combined with the hallucinatory sensation of wondering what is “real” and what is just another layer of storytelling.

Mo Yan’s weaving together of these three distinct vantage points of a single story while inserting himself and treating all three as varying shades of textual (as distinct from real) makes The Republic of Wine and impressive novel. The closest comparison I can think of to this novel is Curzio Malaparte’s grimly surreal The Skin, but Mo Yan is much more subtle in his visions. And yet, it is only Mo Yan’s literary technique that may be called subtle since The Republic of Wine is an orgy of sensation. This is no straightforward detective tale or psychological thriller, but a story where the reader is sucked into the sensory world of hallucination where he or she is besieged by a riot of colors, tastes, sounds, and smells that threaten to overpower and it is in this aspect of the novel that I most saw Mo Yan’s critique of modern Chinese consumer culture.

For all that I appreciated The Republic of Wine and understood Mo Yan’s 2012 Nobel Prize, I did not love the book. It might have been all the more powerful for its rawness and inconsistencies, and some of my disorientation was, I am sure, intentional, I sometimes had a hard time following along. This was particularly true when there were allusions or references to Mo Yan’s other books, and I sort of wish I had begun with one of his others. More problematic for me, though, and something that I have had trouble with in other translations of Chinese-language novels, was that I did not particularly love any of the characters and in the absence of a strong plot, I sometimes found myself adrift.

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Next up, I recently finished (and loved!, minor peccadilloes aside) N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I am going to read the other books in that trilogy in short order, I suspect, and I picked up the second from the library yesterday, but I am currently reading a history of the city of Odessa, in part because I have family that lived there before coming to the United States.

The Foundation Pit – Andrey Platonov

“It’s the way things are done,” replied Chiklin. “The dead are all special—they’re important people.”

"Telling me!" Exclaimed Nastya in astonishment. "I don't know why people go on living. why doesn't everyone die and become important."

The Foundation Pit opens with the worker Voschev being “made redundant” in the factory where he works. In a modern setting this redundancy would be the result of automation, but in 1920s Soviet Union it is a euphemism for any sort of expendability—in this case, a more mundane issue of growing old and being unable to keep up with the pace of work. So Voschev is set adrift only join in with a team of workers digging the eponymous foundation pit that will allow for the construction of palatial halls for all of the region’s collectivized workers to live. As the ambitions of collectivization grow, so too do the plans for the building and so the pit has to be ever expanded…but there is an irony in that while the proposed building grows up, but the work only ever goes down. What is intended to be the foundation for future growth can just as easily turn into a grave.

In the place of a strong plot (which defaults to, “dig more!”), The Foundation Pit is built from scenes with stock characters: a disabled revolutionary veteran, the tireless worker, the morbid child, the black-smithing bear. Platonov builds these characters from three main sources: the gospels and other orthodox literature, Russian folklore, and Soviet political propaganda, as well as taking from other contemporary Russian literature. I appreciated the density of these references in part because I can see echoes of the same traditions in later books about Soviet collectivism (e.g. Animal Farm) and thus believe that The Foundation Pit is an impressively erudite work of literature. And yet, as someone who is not particularly well-versed in any of those traditions, I found the book esoteric and unapproachable. I have long been an advocate for the New York Review of Books translations, but this installment was deeply disappointing because the lengthy explanatory notes were inconsistent in their coverage and poorly connected to the actually references in the text. In sum: my ignorance limited my ability to appreciate The Foundation Pit and the edition did little help me out.

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Next up, I finished reading Mo Yan’s deeply disturbing novel The Republic of Wine earlier today and am now reading Jack McCallum’s Dream Team.

Women of the Silk – Gail Tsukiyama

I read The Samurai’s Garden early in 2016 in my push to start reading a more diverse array of books and liked it well enough that I decided to pick up a copy of Tsukiyama’s acclaimed debut novel, Women of the Silk.

Women of the Silk is a slow story that unfolds over nineteen years (1919-1938) in southern China. Pei is the second daughter of a peasant son-less farmer who dedicated his life to mulberry bushes and fish ponds. A series of lean years force the family to make difficult decisions, one of which is to ostensibly sell Pei, about age eleven, into servitude at the Yung Kee silk factory where her wages will help support the family. The novel unfolds slowly, following Pei and her new family (the eponymous women of the silk), be they her surrogate mother Auntie Yee or her friends like Mei Li and Lin. It is a story about friendship and everyday life, with characters grappling with love, labor, and their liminal position between the truly rural existence that Pei was born in and the urban environments of Hong Kong. There are limited climaxes as tension builds over some conflict, but the story ultimately builds to the end of this existence when there appears the specter of war with Japan.

Unlike most stories that deal with child labor, Women of the Silk portrays the situation in terms of sadness, not horror. The work is difficult, but, while there is one incident of labor unrest, it is not brutal and the women are taken care of. Moreover, Tsukiyama focuses on how Pei and the other women formed a surrogate community within a culture extremely dependent on family, doubly so when the women perform a commitment ceremony to symbolically wed the work. Work is difficult, but the pay offers freedom that did not exist for women like Pei’s biological sister whose life is entirely at the whim of her father or husband. Thus, silk work is likewise attractive even to Lin, whose background is diametrically opposite Pei and equally as restricting.

Tsukiyama’s prose is lyrical in a way that suits Women of the Silk‘s narrative as it builds the relationships in the silk factory. That said, I found myself frustrated because the book seemed to be giving vignettes of particular importance that I did not think were all completely earned. It goes without saying any book will have to focus on these episodes and none of them were necessarily inappropriate for the characters, but in several the story drops in without either developing the characters directly involved in the episode or focusing on Pei’s reaction to the events. The result is a dissonant sensation where the prose gives a sense of depth, but the story only sometimes allows for this to be realized. It was for this reason that while I didn’t dislike Women of the Silk, I much preferred The Samurai’s Garden. In other words, Women of the Silk is a first novel with a lot of promise, but left me wanting more.

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Next up, I finished Andrey Platonov’s curious and increasingly esoteric novel The Foundation Pit and am now reading nobel laureate Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine.

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

“We know you need wifi like you need air.” – hotel commercial.

“We want unlimited entertainment.” – Mark Wahlberg, in a phone commercial.

“Nobody but Ludditic granola-crunching freaks would call bad what no one can imagine being without.” – Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest is a notoriously complex and torturous novel, full of arcana, errata, and opacity. IJ is set in a dystopic near-future where chemical accidents have created a toxic “Concavity” (or Convexity, depending on P.O.V.) in what was once upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, creating something of a no-man’s land infested by feral hamsters where children are born without skulls. Enormous fans north of Boston keep the toxins from spreading south. The U.S., Canada, and Mexico have merged into a singular entity called O.N.A.N. (note the pun) under the presidential leadership of the singer Johnny Gentle, though many decisions are actually made by Rod “the God” Tine, director of the “Office of Unspecified Services,” an agency formed by combining law enforcement and intelligence services. Johnny Gentle’s presidency, largely post democratic and deeply corporate (naming rights to years are purchased, such that much of IJ takes place in “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”) is marked by “experialist” policies, which consist of forcing other countries to accept pieces of land (that are often now toxic) which contribute to fairly widespread separatism, particularly in Quebec.

Functionally, IJ has three narrative pieces that are variously interwoven. The basic plot of IJ is an operation by Tine’s agent Hugh (sometimes Helen) Steeply meeting with Remy Marathe, a member of Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants (Wheelchair Assassins, a.k.a. the A.F.R.) and turning him with promise of medical treatment for his wife born in the Concavity. Steeply needs information from Marathe because the A.F.R. are looking for a weapon of mass destruction: a movie created by the apres-garde director James O. Incandenza (a.k.a. The Mad Stork; Himself) titled Infinite Jest that, when watched, renders the viewer mad, with no ambitions other than repeatedly and endlessly watching the film. Steeply spends one night with Marathe in Arizona to thwart the A.F.R.

The scenes between Steeply and Marathe form the narrative backbone for IJ, but they are equal parts philosophical dialogue and framing device for the bulk of novel, which largely takes place in two parallel institutions in “Enfield,” MA (in the vicinity of Allston-Brighton), the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol House. The Ennet House story follows Don Gately, a enormous, small-time crook and drug addict who, after a stint in jail and rehab, is now a live-in staffer at Ennet House. The story at Enfield Tennis Academy is that of the Incandenza family—Himself, now deceased, his widow Avril (tall, beautiful Quebecker, militant grammarian, strange sexual tendencies, a.k.a The Moms), brother-in-law Charles Tavis, and two youngest sons Mario (deformed, childlike) and Hal (brilliant intellectually and athletically, habitual drug user), though the latter is the primary character for this arc. Both stories are linked by the past relationship between Orin Incandenza (oldest son, now NFL punter with troublesome erotic tendencies) and Joelle van Dyne (former cheerleader, star of Infinite Jest, drug addict, cripplingly beautiful, member of the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, a.k.a. radio personality Madam Psychosis). Further, the relationship to J.O. Incandenza make all of these characters A.F.R.-targets in their pursuit of the master tape of IJ.

Explaining IJ in these terms, however, understates its complexity, neuters its brilliance, and doesn’t even touch on what the book is actually about.*

[*To the extent even that one person can claim any sort of authoritative understanding.]

Drugs and alcohol feature prominently in IJ, both in the sense that most of the characters (ab)use substances or are in N/AA and in that there are many endnotes that are nothing more than the commercial details of the drugs mentioned in the story. These features, however, more serve as an entry point for a novel that is, in a much more catholic sense, about addiction and longing. My understanding of IJ is that it is about the universal human desire to have some sort of meaningful connection in the world.

We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately — the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly.

As simple as this sounds, it is actually heinously complex. The world, not so different from modern America, is consumed by tele-entertainment, consumerism, looks, and unapproachable idols such as (in a slightly dated reference that stood out to me because of teaching last semester) Raquel Welch. Everyone wants to feel something and to find some sort of connection, but most of what people actually do in pursuit of meaningful connection leaves them addicted and alone. Usually the act in question is some form of drug abuse, but for others it is sex. One such is Orin Incandenza, a serial adulterer whose perversion is in seducing young, often married, mothers and needing them to fall desperately, totally in love with him before he breaks off the relationship. In dialogue with Steeply, Marathe posits that Americans fetishize freedom, but that their definition of freedom is a “freedom from…constraint” and, elsewhere, there is a discussion of “idolatry of uniqueness.” Of course, the bounds of these freedoms are set by the entertainment because that entertainment sets the parameters of what it means to be hip, which is equated with being admired and accepted. Each new innovation adds depth and complexity to omnipresent social anxiety.

“Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves.”

There is a tension between the need for connection with other people and the superficiality of a world saturated with entertainment promising immediate freedom from displeasure without regard for anyone other than the individual. When people go to increasingly depraved lengths, whether to find connection or relieve their neurasthenia, they become increasingly isolated—in no small part because they end up hurting the people around them.

This summation only scratches IJ‘s surface. There are individual scenes that are particularly disturbing to read and others that made me laugh aloud, including a film presentation that is nothing but a real-time film of the audience and lasts exactly as long as there are people in the theater and Eschaton, an abstract global war game using tennis balls in place of nuclear warheads. There are the roots of all the reasons why a particular type of man idolizes Wallace’s exacting and raw style, only doing so in such a way that might repulse women, and there is plenty of fodder for a discussion about the gender and sexual politics in D.F.W.’s writing*. There are limitations in his setting, in terms of globalization and nationalism. There are deep readings to be had about the literary qualities of IJ‘s postmodernism**, and reading it in line with Hamlet where “Infinite Jest” is used in the scene with the skull, adding another layer to Concavity’s effects because it causes children to be born without skulls, and with its lengthy scenes with a ghost. Likewise: the whole story takes place as a flashback, so is Hal’s condition at the start of IJ the result of his consuming a drug or is it a symptom of withdrawal? (I believe it is the latter.) Could the whole story be a hallucination? If so, whose? If not, who is the author? Is there also the hand of an editor? And on and on.

[*I asked a friend whether, had he lived, Wallace might receive similar critical reception that Dave Chapelle had with his latest specials, only on the issues of gender.

**A term that can mean anything or nothing. I mean something specific in this sense, but don’t want to get into it here because I have already gone on too long.]

Let me conclude with this question: did I like Infinite Jest? I certainly appreciated it. I have appreciated everything I’ve read of Wallace’s, improving my vocabulary at the very least and usually coming away with a deeper appreciation for something in the world. It is a book that lingers, that you start to see everywhere, and, in final calculation, I think I did like it.

This does not mean, however, that I recommend that everyone go pick up a copy. Reading IJ is a chore that, partly because of several stretches where I wasn’t able to read at all, it took me nearly a month and a half to do and even then I felt that I missed a lot. Reading IJ takes time and determination and lends itself to a particular type of stubborn personality that crops up again and again in the book. If you made it this far but reading this post gave you palpitations, then I would not recommend the book; if you’re intrigued and want to give it a read, then I can promise that there is something to be gained in the investment.

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Next up, my palate cleanser from Infinite Jest was China Mieville’s excellent The City & The City, a fantastical noir story set in twinned and overlapping rival cities in Eastern Europe. I am now reading Gail Tsukiyama’s acclaimed first novel, Women of Silk.

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

You will subjugate the unknown beings on other planets who may still be living in the primitive condition of freedom, to the beneficent yoke of reason. If they fail to understand that we bring them mathematically infallible happiness, it will be our duty to compel them to be happy.

As schoolchildren we all read (perhaps you have, too) that greatest literary monument to have been handed down to use from ancient days–“The Railway Guide.”

In the distant future, after the two hundred years’ war threatened to end the human race, there is a more civilized age that promises to bring people happiness under the aegis of the One State. Mankind lives in a state of logical, mechanical perfection, separated from nature by Green Walls. They are to consider themselves appendages of the collective body and are thus assigned numbers, roles, and schedules. People request sexual partners, receiving coupons to be redeemed within allotted times; only during these times are people allowed to lower the shades on their transparent apartments.

Life in the One State is dictated by their holy book handed down from ancient times: The Railway Guide.” The twin pillars of religion are Taylorism and the state. The Table of Hours, found in the Guide, structures the day, with only the briefest period wherein people are left to their own devices. All other time is devoted to the One State; to do otherwise is treasonous.

D-503, the author and protagonist of We, is the lead engineer on the Integral, a ship designed to spread the civilization of the One State to other planets. The project is nearing completion, so D-503 is pleased with his contribution to society and happily registered in his relationship with O-90. Then he meets I-330, who interjects herself into his life and challenges his entire world view. More than preying on D-503’s glimmer of biological urges, I-330 is part of a secret sect of “Mephi,” people who fundamentally reject the tenets of the One State and are working to undermine its existence, and who see the Integral as an opportunity to do just that. As a result of this encounter, D-503 becomes infected, he thinks, with the disease of imagination—an epidemic that threatens the very being of the One State.

Written in 1920/21 in the Soviet Union and (perhaps unsurprisingly) denied publication, We is a novel that pushes collectivism to its absurd extreme. Art still exists, but only in rational terms such as mathematical couplets. Imagination is a disease, nature a threat. Happiness comes from the absence of freedom and choice. Crime is unheard of and desires are met. The central narrative arc in We is one number’s (D-503) gradual awakening as an individual and the pain he suffers when this process causes him to be rejected from his community as though a cancerous cell. It is story of fall and salvation, with an overt parallelism to the Biblical story about the fall of man, this time from a mechanical Eden.

I have been meaning to reread We for a while because I had it high on my list of favorite novels, but found myself unable to remember much about the story outside a few turns of phrase. I worried that, perhaps, I had it listed too high. In short, I did not. We is a masterpiece, unrelenting in its vision of totalitarian society. Zamyatin is not blind to the virtues of collectivism or the importance of one’s community, but simultaneously exposes the importance of nature, of individualism, and even of heresy.

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It might be a little while before I write another of these book reviews because, on a whim, I decided to start reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I am both super excited to finally start in on this novel by one of my favorite authors and nervous that a) I’m not in the right headspace to read it; b) that it’ll suffer from being overhype; and c) that I won’t get it. There is only one way to find out.

In the meantime, I am going to be writing about a few other topics, coming up, including hopefully more little vignettes from ancient sources and some reflections on the PhD process after my defense.

The End of Days – Jenny Erpenbeck

The customs of man are like footholds carved into inhumanity, she thinks, something a person who’s been shipwrecked can clutch at to pull himself up, and nothing more. How much better it would be, she thinks, if the world were ruled by chance and not a God.

Shame, then, is the price one pays for this life of freedom, or is this itself the freedom: that shame no longer matters. Then America really must be Paradise.

Even before this, she’d thought at times that deprivation made people more alike, made their movements, down to the gestures of their hands and fingers even more predictable.

A unnamed female child dies in 1900, in a small village in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This child was born to a Jewish woman and an Catholic civil servant thrust together by events that included the murder of the girl’s grandfather by Poles. Her death tears apart the unlikely couple, but could it have gone differently?

The End of Days is a beautiful, powerful novel divided into five books, each of which is centered on the death of the same mostly unnamed woman. Some, like the first, open with her death and explore how this causes things to unravel, while others, like the second, build toward her death. Her lives and deaths offer a portrait of the twentieth century in these five vignettes: rural Galicia, Vienna after World War One, Moscow during the purges in the 1930s, East Berlin in the 1960s, and finally Berlin in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The five deaths are bound together by intermezzos that each ask how things could have gone differently, unraveling the events that led to her death and weaving out a new continuation that leads, inevitably, to a different future and a new death.

There is an exploration of the Butterfly Effect, but only in limited ways. Each of the deaths is treated as a confluence of unfortunate events, some with intent and some by accident, but instead of looking at how grand events might have changed, The End of Days focuses treats this one, unnamed woman’s life as the collision point of all the ripples. Thus, the question is: how might this one woman have lived on and how might she have died next.

Each of the other pasts lives on as a dim, mostly forgotten memory of a possible past had things gone differently, and this interplay between remembering and forgetting forms one of the dominant themes in The End of Days. From the outset, unnamed protagonist’s mother does not know her father. He was murdered by Poles and the couple’s treasured collected works of Goethe damaged, but her mother never tells this story either to her daughter or to her granddaughter, while their Jewish heritage is supplanted by marxism, modernism, and German culture. Of course, devotion to Goethe is insufficient to save one from concentration camps. The cycle repeats when the protagonist crafts an autobiography meant to save her from a Siberian labor camp and when she constructs a new past for her son’s absent father. History weighs down every character The End of Days. Yet they find themselves untethered from their family’s past and therefore lacking a sound foundation to appreciate that history.

It would not be entirely untoward to call The End of Days morbid since there a heavy pall of death lingers over the whole novel, but there is a clear affection for this unnamed woman that makes her repeated deaths poignant. In each book, she aspires to live in the shadow of massive events, but her struggles are mundane: to breathe, to find herself as a teen, newly in love and fighting with her mother, to find her husband, to raise a child as a single mother, to reconcile herself to a world changed once more.

These few words do not do justice to how much I loved The End of Days. There is a raw brutality to the story that is bound by tenderness. Time and again I found myself rereading sentences and paragraphs, just lingering on the questions posed or statements offered, including the examples that open the post. This is not to say that The End of Days is limited to one-line quips about modernity. The story builds to each of these observations as a climax before receding slightly and building up again, in a microcosm of how the book as a whole builds to a climax and then unwinds so that it can build up again. The result is an overlapping portrait of a century in Eastern Europe. This is a book I cannot recommend highly enough.

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Next up, I am rereading Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We.

Chaos and Night – Henry de Montherlant

The Spanish Civil War is long-since concluded, the Republican forces defeated. For the past twenty years an old anarchist, Don Celestino, has lived in France with his daughter, daring not return lest he be executed. So he remains in Paris, haunted by memories of the war, writing political tracts, and feeling betrayed by his ex-patriot friends. Then his sister dies in Madrid. Don Celestino feels obliged to return to the world of his aristocratic lineage and so arranges to take his daughter back to their native country for the first time with two objectives: to sort out the inheritance and to get to go to the bullfights one last time.

Chaos and Night is a modern reinterpretation on the story of Don Quixote. In place of an illness, though, Don Celestino is overcome by a peculiar mixture of paranoia and nostalgia. His paranoia is obvious: his actions during the war leave him at risk should he ever return to Spain. His nostalgia requires more explanation. Don Celestino has been fighting the same fight in his head for the past two decades but, for all practical purposes, there is no revolution anymore. His windmills are the ideological opponents that exist only in his head. Consequently, when Don Celestino returns to Spain, he is horrified by the country’s modernization, most notably in the dilution of the bullfighting tradition. While Don Celestino lives in his memories every day, the citizens of Spain seem determined to forget. His daughter, on the other hand, relishes the opportunity to escape Don Celestino’s mental prison.

There were aspects to Chaos and Night that I liked and there were individual scenes such as one in which Don Celestino plays matador for Parisian cars, that stood out. And yet, I found myself underwhelmed by the novel either as a critique of modernization or as a psychological inquiry into paranoiacal nostalgia. It was most successful as a play on Don Quixote, but this alone only takes the story so far. I have a hard time articulating why I was not unmoved because I like each of the book’s major themes and de Montherlant was, in my opinion, successful in characterizing Don Celestino. The closest thing about the book that I can point to is that the extreme focus on Don Celestino happens at the expense of rounding out or even really engaging with any of the other characters, which, in turn, caused the overall story to fall flat. Chaos and Night had its moments, but did not rise to the level of a lot of the books I have recently read, including The End of Days, the book I read immediately after this one.

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With this post I am all caught up on my backlog of posts. I just finished reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, a remarkable book that I am going to write about in the next couple days. Next up, I am planning to reread Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We before indulging the siren’s call coming from my stack of unread books.

Laziness in the Fertile Valley – Albert Cossery

Laziness in the Fertile Valley is the third novel by Albert Cossery and the fifth that I have read. Although living in France, all of Cossery’s novels are biting social satires set in twentieth-century Egypt, which gave him the nickname “Voltaire of the Nile.”

Laziness in the Fertile Valley is a traditional family drama. In a rural house in Egypt live five men: a widower patriarch, his once-wealthy brother, and his three grown sons all determined to, in their own ways, secure their inheritance. When the patriarch decides to remarry, it threatens the careful balance in his home. Then Cossery’s wickedly ironic sense of satire takes over. The patriarch has not left his room in ages, the house seems to emit powerful waves of lethargy, and the inheritance the brothers are seeking to preserve is the freedom to sleep. Galal, the eldest, has been sleeping for seven years, wrapping himself in darkness and silence and rising only to eat and relieve himself. Rafik, the middle son, is an ardent firebrand, but only when it comes to protecting the silence of the home, while the youngest, Serag, is fascinated by the promise of modernity represented by a never-completed factory and by the industry of a young homeless man, even though he can barely stay awake long enough to walk to the hulking ruins.

Work is an anathema to Cossery and the themes in this novel are reputedly stolen from his own experiences. This family uses work as a refuge: from school, from work, from society. Only the work of their housekeeper and cook, a female relative, is tolerated. They are also wealthy enough to do so, minimizing their costs through inactivity. Even as Serag is determined to get a job (he dreams of working in the factory, ignorant that it was never operational), he is cautioned away from it by the rest of the family, who tell him of its oppressive horrors, and the siren’s song of sleep catches back up.

Since Serag’s struggle to join the noise and bustle of the outside world is forever stunted, the main conflict in Laziness in the Fertile Valley comes from the intrusion of a go-between matchmaker in the community who is trying to find a new wife for Hafez (the patriarch). Rafik, in particular, sees this invasion as a threat of catastrophic proportions and makes ready disrupt the proceedings by any means necessary…except leaving the house.

Laziness in the Fertile Valley is my second favorite of Cossery’s novels, behind only The Jokers. Sloth and rest seem good to me right about now, but I also think that using humor as a reprieve from the violence and oppression of social forces is more potent than turning ones back on it. Similarly, there is a deep conservatism baked into Laziness, wherein the ambition is to reject all change. Traces of the same argument might be found in The Jokers, but it is not nearly so pronounced since the characters in that novel do have broader public ambitions. The latter option is a privilege most do not get to enjoy. There was a still an enormous amount of humor in this novel as Cossery subverts tropes of oriental laziness and generational family dramas, but it came up short of The Jokers in my estimation.

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I still have one more book to write about from my reading backlog, Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night, an odd little riff on Don Quixote about a Spanish anarchist living in Paris for two decades after the Spanish Civil War, strangled by his memories and now forced to return to Madrid.This past month has been something of a struggle both in general and in terms of the time I have been able to dedicate to reading. I am persisting, though, and am currently reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s beautiful and deeply moving novel The End of Days.

The World of Ice and Fire – George R.R. Martin, et al

Note: this is the first of two or three book write ups that are part of a backlog that developed because of a) dissertation revisions, b) a leaving town for a conference, and c) grading. I finished this book more than two weeks ago and hope to be able to write more frequently going forward.

One of the things I have always loved about fantasy and science fiction novels is the world building. It was for this reason that I dismiss the (perfectly valid) criticism that a series like the Wheel of Time became too unwieldy and has too many point of view characters to maintain a riveting story. These extra characters that might unbalance the plot a little bit also allow you to explore the world in more depth even while often playing out a take on a familiar apocalyptic story arc.

Full disclosure: I also own and like the flawed The World of the Wheel of Time, which tried many of the same things as The World of Ice and Fire, but, ultimately fell a little bit short. One might also offer the same critique in comparing the world building of the two series.

The World of Ice and Fire is an illustrated, encyclopedic history of the world in which the The Song of Ice and Fire is set, running from the dawn of time up nearly to the most recent books (it is dedicated to King Tommen). It is at once lush and full of detail and maddeningly and clearly incomplete. On the one hand, it explicitly avoids recounting stories told in narrative form elsewhere on the grounds that those histories have already been told; on the other, it is written in the form of a history, meaning that it often alludes to controversies and theories, judging them for which is most accurate, and avoiding mention of subjects that might be touchy for the patron of the work, with no mention of rival kings or Tommen’s parentage. Moreover, it is suggested that this work was in the making for a number of years since the dedication to King Tommen is over one or more names that has been blotted out. Then there is the issue of information unknown even to the Maesters of the Citadel, whether because the necessary documents are lost, the history is unrecorded, or information about a distant land, has just never made its way to Westeros.

Having started in middle school, I have been reading A Song of Ice and Fire at this point for more than half my life. As a fan, I really, really liked this book. The World of Ice and Fire strikes a fantastic balance between offering new information about the world and its deep history, while not devolving into a pure reference book. A few minor quibbles on issues of consistency (for which I can make a case for intentionality) aside, the artwork is also gorgeous, giving new vibrancy. One might have wanted more information about, say, the relationship between Houses Stark and Bolton, but the author of this history makes it clear that that is not the history he is telling. Instead, it is a history of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and their place in the wider world. The detailed history of the North (or the Vale or the Reach or Dorne) is simply not relevant to that project.

I also found The World of Ice and Fire a fascinating read as a historian. The purported historian often offers digressions on topics that might be of interest (e.g. the origins of the Hightower at Oldtown), and engages in debates about over the veracity of myths and mentions the previous research that the work is based on. These fictional histories lend credibility to this work and offer anther layer of depth to the world building. Now: this is a particular vision of history. There is some small focus on the general characteristics of “peoples” (in a crude ethnic sort of sense), but movers of events are the great men and women of the past. This is, after all, a history of the Seven Kingdoms written for the king(s).

In sum, I really like The World of Ice and Fire and highly recommend it for anyone who likes the series.*

*I can’t speak for anyone whose interest in in the TV show.

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Next up, I have a backlog of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley. I am currently reading Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night.