Top novel summaries, 20-11

Here are summaries for 20-11 of my top novels. See the introduction and list in its entirety here and summaries for 30-21 here.

20. American Gods, Neil Gaimon
Gods exist because people believe in them, which can also mean that there are multiple versions of each god at any given time, and there is currently a war going on between the old gods and the new gods. Caught in this conflict is Shadow, an ex-con recently released from prison, whereupon he learned that his wife and best friend died in a car accident under less than ideal circumstances. He is set adrift and must eventually choose sides in this conflict between gods.

19. Catch 22, Joseph Heller
This is the story of John Yossarian, a bombardier in Italy during World War Two, whose discharge from the army continues to be kept just out of reach. This novel follows the efforts of Yossarian and the other men in his unit to stay sane and alive so that they can go home.

18. Creation, Gore Vidal
I should admit up front that I am an unabashed fan of Vidal’s, even while I recognize his faults and. Certainly, this novel would not hold up to historical fact-checking. The story picks up in Athens where the grandson of Zoroaster, friend to King Xerxes, and exceptionally old man, and ambassador for the Persian king has just heard a reading by Herodotus, purporting to tell the story of the Persian wars. He is invited to set the story straight and launches into the story of his life where he reveals to the Greeks that they are not the center of the civilized world as his work takes him into India and China.

17. Snow, Orhan Pamuk
There has been a rash of suicides by the “head-scarf” girls in Kars, a town in the far northeastern corner of Turkey. Ka, a poet who had been in exile in Germany for more than a decade, has returned, ostensibly as a journalist to cover the suicides, but also to court Ipek, a former classmate of his and the sister of the leader of the headscarf girls. He arrives just ahead of a snowstorm that cuts off the city and that a group of secular extremists use to stage a coup. Pamuk explores the tensions between the different elements of Turkish identity, particularly between the muslim groups, turks, and secular nationalists.

16. Coming Up For Air, George Orwell
George Bowling is heading off to get a new set of false teeth before work and is sent down memory lane. He used to be able to go fishing in peace, but the world has changed. Progress and industry have destroyed the fishing holes and rivers and even the people he knew growing up.

15. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (15)
Hemingway’s story about the Spanish Civil War. Robert Jordan is an American fighting against the Franco’s fascist forces and, as a demolitions expert, he has gone behind enemy lines to blow up a bridge. He has also fallen for a young Spanish woman named Maria, who he is determined to take care of

14. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Once called “the only convincing love story of the century,” Lolita, is more accurately a story about obsession. Humbert Humbert knows that his attraction to his twelve year old stepdaughter Dolores is wrong, but he persists for at least five years as he keeps them on the move, trying to make a life with her.

13. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
While anchored in the Thames, Charles Marlow recalls a story of an earlier venture in the Belgian Congo when he had to steam into the interior of the country in search of Mr. Kurtz who is reported to be ill. Conrad provides vivid descriptions of the horrors of European colonialism and exploitation in Africa.

12. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth
Young Lt. Trotta saved the life of the young Emperor Franz Joseph and the emperor elevates Trotta and protects his family, but Trotta forces his son to join government service instead of the military. By the third generation of the family, the youngest Trotta re-enters the military, just in time to serve in World War I. But the Trotta family is most notable for their mediocrity, protected from themselves by the patronage of the emperor, long since he has forgotten why he protects this family. The fate of the family, particularly that of the youngest generation, parallels the decline of Franz Joseph and of his empire.

11. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann
Mann updated the story of Faust in the twentieth century. Set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany, Leverkühn has made a pact with a devil for twenty-four years of creative and artistic genius (in this case music genius), which the narrator Zeitblom describes as an allegory for the German nation giving in to the Nazi party.

Love and Death in Key West: To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway

The first edition published for Scribner Classics pimps To Have and Have Not as “a novel of rum running between Cuba and Key West in the 1930s, creating in the durable Harry Morgan one of the most remarkable of Hemingway’s characters.” In its defense, the novel is set in Key West and Cuba in the 1930s, Harry Morgan is the protagonist by most definitions, and there is an instance of rum running between the two settings. My quibble, besides being vaguely off put by the prose, is that the description doesn’t actually tell the interested reader what THaHN is about, but relies on the reputation of Hemingway to draw in the potential reader/buyer. To wit, the accompanying biography of Hemingway is more than twice as long as the teaser for the novel. I venture that the six word title for this review gives a truer sense of the novel than does the evocative promise of a novel about rum running. But I should begin at the beginning.

Hemingway is most noted for writing novels with one of two settings, Europe or the Caribbean. My own proclivity is to favor the former, but THaHN takes place in the second of the settings. Harry Morgan is a fisherman who charters his boat, usually for fishing trips, but also for smuggling runs when he is desperate. During prohibition he smuggled rum from Cuba, but prohibition is over, so the profits are no longer worth the risk. The first portion of THaHN follows the activities of Harry Morgan trolling the waters between Key West and Havana, but, gradually, the novel opens and pulls back from this narrow perspective, revealing for the reader characters such as Marie Morgan, Harry’s wife, Helen and Richard Gordon (a novelist and his wife), and Professor MacWalsey. As Hemingway broadens the perspective, THaHN ceases to be a novel even about smuggling or sailing between Key West and Havana. It is about people falling into and out of love in Depression-era South Florida.

This is not to say that other Hemingway novels are devoid of emotional attachment between men and women, quite the contrary. I found there to be genuine affection between Robert Jordan and Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the relationship between Lady Ashley and Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises has a number of different levels to it, [1] but in THaHN the dominant emotion. In contrast, THaHN has a protagonist, Harry Morgan, who is in love with his wife Marie and sees her one way, but that impression is radically different from what Richard Gordon imagines her to be; Richard Gordon has his relationship snarls with his wife and others, while his wife has her own issues.[2] And at the same time Hemingway highlights the relationships of minor characters, including some who only exist in a sort of panoramic scene that sweeps through the harbor. In this way the novel is more generally about these emotions than any one relationship as is the case in some of Hemingway’s other work.

Of course a Hemingway novel would be incomplete without alcohol. But rather than rum running, the alcohol in THaHN tends to be more mundane drinking, particularly to avoid problems. So Professor MacWalsey:

”I am ashamed and disgusted with myself and hate what I have done. It may turn out badly, too. I will return to the anaesthetic I have used for seventeen years and will not need much longer. Although it is probably a vice now for which I only invent excuses. Though at least it is a vice for which I am well suited.”

To Have and Have Not is a beautiful little book. Critics of Hemingway will be sure to find something to become riled up about,[3] but none of the language seemed particularly excessive. I still like tSAR the best among the Hemingway books I have read, [4] but THaHN is a close second.

Next up, I am nearly through reading both Kafka’s The Castle [5] and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

[1] This relationship and its limits is one of the obvious through-lines of the entire story and (in my own opinion, naturally) the two have an emotional closeness that is made all the more heart-wrenching from the narrator’s point of view because he is utterly incapable of bringing the relationship to fruition. This is the long way of saying that I find Hemingway’s work to be loaded with emotion.
[2] It is cliche to point out that Hemingway was looking to write a true story, but when a couple is having a falling out, it seemed particularly apropos for them to snap at each to snap at the other about his or her sexual prowess, or lack thereof.
[3] In particular I am thinking of some of the descriptions of African Americans and Cubans, but I am generally willing to forgive that sort of descriptions if it enhance the novel.
[4] The Sun Also Rises, To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Moveable Feast, The Green Hills of Africa.
[5] My impression of it so far is that Kafka wrote a brilliant story about the problems bureaucracy in which seems to be playing a grand, incomprehensible joke on the protagonist and the reader alike.