March Reading Recap

Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes
I read Heart of Darkness a few years ago and, while it was a challenging read, I found it quite moving and decided I would read his other works. I only made it a few pages into The Secret Agent before giving that up because I was busy. This past month I made another pass, this time picking up Under Western Eyes. Razumov, a student who is usually taken for being more intelligent than he is because he doesn’t talk much, is drawn into a revolutionary conspiracy against the Tsar. The plot launched its first attack with grenade attack against ranking ministers and one of the conspirators, Haldin, seeks refuge in R.’s apartment. R. then sells him out to the government before fleeing the country himself Though most of the action (such that it is) takes place in St. Petersburg, the story itself is set in Geneva, where R. went into exile (at the behest of the Tsarist regime) and where he meets and falls in love with Haldin’s sister. The narrator, old English instructor who knows a few members of the Russian ex-pat community, pieces the story together from R.’s journal and his conversations with the participants and declares that he is writing the account as a westerner and intending for it to be read by an English audience–supposedly so that they can see the conditions and flaws of both the Russian state and the revolutionary movements.

There were some interesting passages in this novel, but, on the whole, I found that the story dragged. Conrad is loquacious and oblique throughout the story–in part due to “secret history” structure and deferred narrative authority. I suspect that some of my reaction to the book has more to do with me than with the novel since I seem to have lost my taste for seemingly antiquated prose in the years since I read Heart of Darkness. Under Western Eyes is still worth leading, but I did not love it nearly as much as I had hoped to going in. In short, I loved this book.

Albert Cossery, The Jokers
Full review found here here, The Jokers was my favorite of the three books I read this month. The Jokers, the eponymous comic heroes of the novel, don’t care about money, power, society, bureaucracy, or much else. The entire world is one big joke that most people, particularly the people in power, are too stupid to realize. In some ways, lightheartedness is the polar opposite of the oppressiveness of Under Western Eyes. In short, I highly recommend this book.

Brandon Sanderson, Words of Radiance
The second book Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, which is long epic fantasy series–long both in books and words; this volume is about as long a book as they (the publishers) could bind. Like all books I like in this mold, the beauty lies in the breadth and depth of the world more than in any one plot arc or character–the world is between “desolations” and there are a few different people or groups of people who are all trying to save the world, though they are all doing so with incomplete information and different short term goals, meaning that they have a tendency to expend as much information combatting people who are blind to the larger need and against each other as they do working for “the greater good.” As is appropriate for a second book, too, Sanderson brings back most of the featured characters from the first book–Dalinar, the king’s uncle and warlord, Kaladin, a former slave and spearman, Shallan, an artist and scholar from a family fallen from grace, etc, and then expands the roles for others such as Adolin and Renarin, Dalinar’s sons, and others. Each book has flashbacks dedicated to a single character, so where the first was Kaladin, the second is Shallan, wherein you get to learn how terrible her upbringing was and why.

I’m not sure that I would recommend this book to people who are not already fans of this style of fantasy–and if you are, please start with the first book. But for fans of the genre, Sanderson does a good job at world creation and designing interesting magic systems, and this installment provides one of the most obvious crossovers to his other work (all his books exist in the same multiverse and are connected, though each series is designed to stand on its own). I’ve been reading this style of book since elementary school and love a well-crafted world, particularly those that aren’t simply rehashing old tropes and come across feeling pre-packaged from a generic DnD or fantasy novel world starter kit. I like other series and other authors better, but I do believe that Sanderson is one of the top fantasy authors currently writing and am eagerly waiting for the next installment.

March was a busy month for me between teaching, grading, writing, and a short, but remarkably busy, trip to Minneapolis for a 65th wedding anniversary, so I only finished three books. April may well be more of the same, but I am currently in the middle of Alberto Moravia’s novel Boredom and picked up a bunch of new (used) books in Minneapolis that I am looking forward to reading, including Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, Cossery’s Proud Beggars and Llosa’s The War at the end of the World.

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.

The City and the Mountains, José Maria de Eça de Queirós, t. Roy Campbell

“Leaning in His super-divine forehead which conceived the world, on the super-powerful hand which created it–the Creator was reading and smiling. I dared, shivering with sacred horror, to peep over His radiant shoulder. The book was a popular edition, paper-covered. The Eternal was reading Voltaire in the new, three-franc, cheap edition, and smiling.”

Published in 1901, the year after Eça de Queirós’ death from tuberculosis, The City and the Mountains has a reputation as a masterpiece as Eça de Queirós that of “Portugal’s Flaubert” [1] and the Amazon product description says that the “novel is a hymn to country life,” which is true enough.

Jose (Ze) Fernandez, the narrator, is a landowner from rural Portugal who grew up and received his education in Paris where he met Jacinto, the scion of a particularly wealthy and powerful family. The first half of the novel takes place in Paris, the center of civilization. There, Jacinto is a sort of super-modern man with access to books and machines and comforts. For Jacinto, for one to be modern that person needs to devote himself to improvement, that is the collection or mastery of all things. Without these features, man is reduced to the position of an animal–just a stomach and a phallus, as he at one point says.

Ze Fernandez doesn’t have the same tolerance for city life as Jacinto and, after a temporary reprieve back home in Portugal, he finds himself distinctly uncomfortable in the city. He also begins to notice upon his return a change in his friend. Instead of achieving greatness within civilization, Jacinto is smothered by it. The novel takes a sudden turn at the midway point when Jacinto decides to return to his ancestral estate. Though he initially struggles in the transition away civilization to rustic simplicity, Jacinto becomes refreshed and energetic. Perhaps predictably, Jacinto finds himself happily married with children and Ze Fernandez concludes of Paris: “only two impulses seemed to live in that multitude, the love of pleasure and the love of gain.”

It is possible to consider Eça de Queirós’ vitriol against modern urban life, particularly against the unseen consequences of labor, the desire to avoid hardship, and the speed of life heavy handed (as the sole Amazon customer review does), but some of the heavy handedness is the result of the juxtaposition of the two settings. The radical change from one to the next is enhanced by Eça de Queirós’ rich descriptions of each place, but it is the change itself that establishes the contrast. Moreover, The City and the Mountains falls into the same literary family as other fin-de-siecle authors who explored the consequences of civilization and what happens inside and outside its bounds.[2] Eça de Queirós’ observations about the bourgeois mindset are as poignant and funny as his portrait of rural life is (mostly) unrealistically idyllic. Certainly, his commentary on modern man, so dependent upon seen and unseen labor, creature comforts that cause people to literally lose touch with reality,[3] and the constant sensory demands of civilized life should not be dismissed as a novelty of the fin-de-siecle. In many ways these concerns are more pressing than ever.

I should note that there are a few references to contemporary Portuguese issues such as the fear of an attempted coup by Dom Miguel, the son of the exiled king Joao (John) VI and himself king until the 1834. But the political issues are not central to the plot and only once or twice would knowledge of it have added an added layer of realism and/or satire to the novel.[4]

While The City and the Mountain is well worth a read, I would not recommend this translation. Roy Campbell’s translation came off stilted and choppy and, Zounds!, were the interjections unfortunate. I do not read Portuguese so it may be that Campbell was true to the original language at the expense of smoothing it into literary English. But here is a brief comparison with a new translation:

“From this terrace * * * we can see well the dismal rows of houses where the common people cower beneath that immemorial opprobrium from which neither religions, nor philosophies, nor morals, nor their own brutal violence can ever liberate them. There they lie scattered about the city like vile manure which fertilizes the City. Centuries roll by. The same dirty rags cover their bodies, and men will drudge and their women will weep and whimper for ever. How this labour of theirs edifies and enriches the city!”

(t. Roy Campbell)

“From this terrace, * * * we have a clear view of the dismal houses where the populace remains weighed down by that ancient opprobrium from which neither religions or philosophies or morality, nor their own brute strength, will ever be able to free them! There they lie, scattered about the City, like some kind of vile human manure. The centuries roll by, and the same immutable rags cover their bodies, and beneath those rags, through the long day, the men will labor and the women will weep. And the wealth of the City, dear Prince, is built on the labor and tears of the poor.”

(t. Margaret Jull Costa)

In this limited sample, the new translation is clearer English prose and is structured in such away that it encourages the reader to carry on rather than get bogged down.[5] Since I found this translation un-conducive to easy reading but enjoyed the novel anyway, I suggest trying the new version.

Next up is The Castle by Franz Kafka.

[1] So says an editorial review from Amazon.
[2] For instance, I saw loose similarities between Eça de Queirós and Joseph Conrad. Where one’s wilderness is bucolic, the other is wild and savage. Conrad’s Mr. Kurz is Eça de Queirós’ Jacinto without ancestral lands or obsession for toys.
[3] See also David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and the movie Wall-E.
[4] Ze Fernandez holds a party at which Jacinto receives a cool reception. Contextually their mistrust makes sense without knowing the historical situation, but knowledge of Portugal’s tumultuous political history in the 19th c. would have tied the book together a bit more neatly.
[5] This is a personal opinion and someone with a grasp of the original language may disagree about which translation is better. But read enough books in translation and you get a feel for which ones are poorly done.

Reflections on The Heart of Darkness: Racism and Audience

One of the books I read last summer after finishing up my Thesis was Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. I had not read it before, but I found that I enjoyed it quite a bit. While I browsed around for more Conrad books to read (eventually settling on The Secret Agent), I came across some reviews The Heart of Darkness. There were two prevalent critiques: racism and difficulty of reading, particularly in regard to the verbiage. I understand both complaints, but find both to be invalid.

It is readily apparent in The Heart of Darkness that Conrad is a product of his times and certainly has many of the same prejudices of his time. He is no more racist than his contemporaries and considerably less so than many. So, yes, there are racist elements in The Heart of Darkness, but that does not discredit him. The descriptions in the book, without yet broaching Conrad’s messages about human nature and “civilization,” are incredibly vivid and are critical of colonial exploitation. Keeping in mind that the entire story is told as a reminiscence of Marlow, a man who was employed by a colonial company Conrad depicts “the whites” as the active characters juxtaposed by the more or less passive “blacks.” Even if he did not intend fore there to be an overarching critique of the white behavior (which I think he did intend), and disturbing (though accurate) descriptions of behavior in much the same way as Mark Twain created, The Heart of Darkness still serves as an insight into the conscience of a generation. Was Conrad a racist? Perhaps, but he is also clearly uncomfortable with exploitation and provides a scathing critique of civilization and imperialism–even if there is also an admission that lawlessness is worse.

For what it is worth, I have not read what Edward Said has written about Conrad (though I would like to).

Conrad’s writing is beautiful, direct, and honest. I had few problems with the verbiage and syntax, though I can see why some people may struggle. Frankly, school systems in this country ill prepare people for the humanities in general and particularly history and English. Though I love reading and have a good vocabulary, I hated assigned books and most of the accompanying exercises. Most of the vocabulary and syntax knowledge people get is through their independent reading. Books are widely available, but many of those that are widely read have easier structure and vocabulary. For the most part this is to make them accessible. Many classics of literature were not meant to be as widely read simply because the literate stratum of society was not as large. Conrad uses “big” words, but I suspect that those people who read it upon release would have had no difficulties. In order for a work to survive it has to be read immediately, so I doubt any author attempts to predict what writing would make his work readable in perpetuity. Yes, Conrad provides a challenge to read, but in The Heart of Darkness it is well worth the effort.