January 2016 Reading Recap

I don’t feel compelled to list each book individually for the first time since I started doing these. This is because, for the first time since I started reviewing books I have read here, I actually reviewed all six books I finished in January: The Green House, Darkness at Noon, Water for Elephants, Girl With Curious Hair, The Samurai’s Garden, and Between the Woods and the Water.

January can be a good reading month for me. The combination of holidays, travel, and a birthday mean that I cut myself some slack to read a lot. This year, January also included my version of a New Year’s Resolution to settle in to do a lot of reading and, I am happy to report, I have not yet broken this goal. I am also quite pleased that the six books I finished, while still geared a bit toward dead white men, actually constituted a diverse slate, with one travel-narrative, one short story collection, two books written by women, one of whom is of non-white heritage, and including books originally written in English, Spanish, and Hungarian. I am particularly happy to have read two books by women in the first month, though I don’t have another one lined up for the near future–something that needs to be remedied.

I am also happy to say that I largely enjoyed all six books, with only The Green House and Girl With Curious Hair not being overwhelmingly enjoyed. Among the other four I can’t choose a favorite because none of them really stood out as superlative, but all were excellent and enjoyable for different reasons. For instance, The Woods and the Water swept me onto the Hungarian plain on a trip I want to enjoy, Darkness at Noon was a revelation on incarceration and revolution, Water for Elephants a fast-paced adventure, and The Samurai’s Garden a beautiful meditation. Darkness at Noon is probably, objectively, the best piece of Literature among these books, while Water for Elephants was the most fun to read, and The Samurai’s Garden meant the most to me personally in terms of where I am mentally, emotionally, personally.

In the interest of always striving for the next thing, I do want to make sure I take some time to read non-fiction–in this, Patrick Leigh Fermor hardly counts. Fortunately, I have just the solution: a new biography of Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia. I looked for a biography last summer, only to find that the available ones were in some sense encomiastic. Last week I came across one newly published in English, a supposedly even-handed account of Haile Selasse written by the king’s nephew.

Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler

At the end of my review of Water for Elephants I wrote that, perhaps, I might need to take a break from reading books that are studies of evil or the brutality of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. My reason was that they are unrelenting and depressing and there reaches a point at which yet another book on the subject doesn’t add anything new to my understanding of the subject. With Darkness at Noon, a novel about the show trials of high-ranking party members in Moscow, I was pleased to be wrong.

Darkness at Noon, originally written in Hungarian and published in 1940, is the story of Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, a high-ranking member of the Soviet Communist Party and a veteran of the revolution. He has been arrested in multiple countries and never betrayed the cause, serving as a diplomat and executor of the party’s will. Now he is arrested as an oppositional thinker and placed in solitary confinement. One by one the old bolsheviks have been sacrificed to Number One (Stalin), and it is Rubashov’s time. Darkness at Noon is one of those stories where you know the end even before it starts, but the question is how does one get there.

The novel is broken into three hearings, each of which corresponds with an interaction with one of his two interrogators, his old friend Ivanov and the junior administrator Gletkin, who is described as a member of the party born without an umbilical cord to the revolution. Rubashov is given the time to think because the state wants his confession to be genuine and voluntary. Along with the two official interlocutors, the imprisoned is also able to talk with the other prisoners, including his neighbor, an unnamed Czarist officer who pines to touch women. However, other than flashbacks and brief scenes with the porter in his building, the reader stays in prison with Rubashov.

The point of view of Darkness at Noon is its greatest strength. Unlike, for instance, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which gives a panorama of a Soviet purge (including of old revolutionaries not unlike Rubashov), Darkness at Noon keeps the focus on the suffering of a single person who is reaching out for human contact. Nevertheless, Gletkin weaves his narratives, correct in their essential points, around Rubashov, making him into a different person. President Clinton used this example to describe the modern media circus during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Orwell, in his essay on Koestler, said that the author saw “totalitarianism from the inside,” as someone who knew what it was like to be the victim. On Darkness at Noon in particular, he wrote:

The implication of Koestler’s book, however, is that Rubashov in power would be no better than Gletkin: or rather, only better in that his outlook is still partly pre-revolutionary. Revolution, Koestler seems to say, is a corrupting process. Really enter into the Revolution and you must end up as either Rubashov or Gletkin.

Rubashov has been in this position and does no differently. Orwell also speculates on the reasons behind Rubashov’s confession, which Koestler posits as the logical conclusion of the events. Despite the ambiguities in the story (as Orwell notes) and the pervasive issues of someone breaking under intense interrogation, Koestler falls back on an older narrative–he builds Darkness at Noon into a religious allegory wherein Rubashov is sacrificed to take on the sins of the communist party, that the revolution may continue. He is promised that his sacrifice will be made known in time. As Orwell puts it, “justice and objective truth have long ceased to have any meaning for him”—what is left is his blind faith in the revolution. The cause has replaced religion.

Koestler presents Rubashov’s sacrifice as reasonable. He is psychologically coerced, but comes to the decision on his own for his own reasons, with just enough description of how the narratives are twisted to demonstrate what an abhorrent action this confession is. Rubashov is sacrificing himself for the good of the collective, and Darkness at Noon is a moving, sometimes funny, portrait of this individual for whom the first person singular pronoun is an anathema.

I haven’t decided what I am going to read next, but despite my protestations of exhaustion with this type of novel, the one I have my eye on most is Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, an indictment of evil in Nazi Germany.

Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen

It must have been five or six years ago that a package arrived from my father containing two books, this one and Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, and a note saying something to the effect that he was glad I now read literary novels (as opposed to almost exclusively science fiction) and that perhaps I would enjoy these. I took to Dr. Faustus quickly, but this book about the circus didn’t pique my interest. It was around the same time that the movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson (who I still only think of as “that guy from Twilight”) was made and still I didn’t crack it open. That is, until two days ago.

Gruen launches the reader immediately into the action of a circus disaster–the animals escape their cages in the menagerie and stampede into the tent. The rest of the novel, split between events seventy years later and recollections of an old man, works its way back to that disastrous start.

Jacob Jankowski is in his nineties and lives in a nursing home, barely able to walk and his memory beginning to fade about details, but active enough to be a grouch. Particularly when people are lying. His family visits every Sunday and, this week, the circus is in town and it calls to mind events in the early 1930s when, the week of his final exams at veterinary school, he is driven to jump onto a passing train. This train, which is the property of the BENZINI BROS MOST SPECTACULAR SHOW ON EARTH traveling circus, literally sweeps him onto an adventure that both sheds light on the deep-seated problems of the early years of the depression in the United States, while also catching Jacob (and the reader) up in the romance of the performances.

Jacob is forced to begin his journey among the workers, setting up tents and playing bouncer for extracurricular entertainments, but quickly finds a job working for August Rosenbluth, the carnival’s master of beasts, taking care of the show’s animals. However, August alternates between the most charming of men and the most violent. To make matters worse, Jacob is smitten with Marlena, the star of the show and August’s wife. The slow-burn is ratcheted up a notch when the carnival adds to the menagerie a “stupid” elephant, the playful and clever Rosie. The triangle of tension that are Jacob, Marlena, and August, becomes a foursome and the plot careens toward the inevitable collision.

Many beats in Water for Elephants were fairly predictable, some because it is at its heart a love story, but most seem to be the details of Gruen’s rich descriptions foreshadowing events because my guesses did not distract. I hated and had affection alongside Jacob throughout the story, both as a very innocent young man and as an old man once again in need of escape. In short, Water for Elephants is a poignant tour of America where nearly every town looks the same from the point of view of the midway on which there are extreme risks for compassion, but where, ultimately, that is also the only way to thrive rather than just survive.

Next up, I am reading Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (yet another) novel about the brutality of totalitarian states turning on the individuals who helped create them. Already I suspect that I will need to give this type of novel a break for a while.