April Reading Recap

I finished two books in April, but didn’t write a review of either of them.

Alberto Moravia, Boredom
Dino is a wealthy Italian man who lives in an artist’s flat, an artist who doesn’t paint. He loathes his mother’s society, but relies on her money for survival. He has also fallen for his model, the model and mistress of his late neighbor, a middle class man estranged from his family. He craves possession of this model, but her disinterest in money and class intrigues him and makes her impossible for him to actually get. To make matters worse, the tighter he clings to her, the more she slips away.

Moravia’s themes, boredom, desire, etc, are ones that I have enjoyed in other books, but this one didn’t do it for me. The protagonist, Dino, is a pompous, spoiled brat who rejects his mother’s villa ostensibly because he finds the money distasteful, but more because his mother’s sole obsession is the cost rather than the thing. He chafes when reminded that he lives on her donations, which she uses to control him much as he tries to control his mistress. He is more hipster than are hipsters and utterly unaware of his surroundings, petulant and obsessive as a child. There is a good chance that this is exactly what Moravia was going for, but I couldn’t stand Dino and therefore didn’t love the book.

Ernest Hemingway, Farewell to Arms

Hemingway’s novel about World War One on the Italian front sticks to the Hemingway schtick–war, courage, brave, bear-liquor, war-wound, jaundice, death, etc. It was a good both, but after other, later, novels, Farewell came across shallow, with none of the characters as fleshed out as they do in other books. I was less persuaded by the romance, less intrigued by the terse-yet-friendly masculinity. I enjoyed the story and was glad to have read the book for completion’s sake, but it was just not on par with the Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or To Have and Have Not. Farewell, for me, was more on par with The Garden of Eden, but for v. different reasons since the latter passed in spades where former fell short.


It is a challenging point of the semester as things come due and exams to mark are pile up. I am also neck-deep in dissertation writing. I am doing my best to write and read a little bit beyond that, though, since I believe it makes me a more rounded reading and person and it helps keep me sane. To that end, I am enjoying Albert Cossery’s Proud Beggars, but it is not as good as The Jokers.

The Jokers, Albert Cossery

“The street was packed with evening strollers enjoying the cooler air at the end of the torrid day. There were the working stiffs, upright and formal; the dignified family men flanked by wives and children; the occasional pair of young newlyweds, who clutched each other’s hands in a grotesque show of commitment. But none of the drinkers at the Globe paid any attention to this mundane procession. They weren’t there to look at humanity in all its mediocrity; they were waiting for a luxuriantly curvaceous woman to show up and arouse their desire. From time to time a metallic squeal, sharp and deafening as a siren, signaled the ambling approach of a tram. The drivers of horse carts, who were so skilled at maneuvering through traffic jams, lashed out at the indolent mob filling the street, impervious to anything but the welcome sea breeze. Heykal tried in vain to locate a single bum, a single happy-go-lucky derelict who had managed to escape the clutches of the police. Not one. Reduced to the contributing members of society–in other words, the depressed and overworked–the city’s streets were becoming strangely sinister. Wherever you went, you were surrounded by public servants. Heykal couldn’t help but remember how the beggar had responded to his invitation to come collect his monthly sum at the house. That a starving beggar would refuse to be seen as an employee: what an insult to posterity, which only recognizes those who make careers of following the rules! History’s full of these little bureaucrats who rise to high positions because of their diligence and perseverance in a life of crime. It was a painful thought: the only glorious men the human race produced were a bunch of miserable officials who cared about nothing but their own advancement and were sometimes driven to massacre thousands of their own just to hold onto their jobs and keep food on the table. And this was who was held up for the respect and admiration of the crowd!”

p.43-4

The regime never changes. Not really. Sometimes it is better, other times worse. The current governor has delusions of grandeur that demand cleaning up the city and relocating the poor and the prostitutes and the beggars to somewhere that can’t be seen, away from the strategic routes, offices, and casinos of the wealthy. The revolutionaries want the governor assassinated and the police want the revolutionaries arrested.

The Jokers think that the fundamental problem is that everyone takes each other too seriously. In fact, the only thing these friends take seriously are their jokes.

Albert Cossery was born in Cairo into a Syrian-Lebanese Greek Orthodox family, trained in a French school and spent most of his life living in Paris, but set all of his novels in Egypt. The Jokers (originally published in French as La violence et la dérision) his 1964 publication is set in a nameless Middle Eastern port city in the heat of summer. The friends Karim, Heykal, Urfy, and Omar have a deep disdain for the governor and the entire establishment for ruining what they enjoy in life as they reject the petty ambitions and material wants of the upper classes. At the same time, they shun the company of revolutionaries who are doomed to failure because, by taking the government seriously, they give it exactly what it wants (and, should the revolution topple the government, they would only become that which they sought to destroy, anyhow). So the friends decide to topple the current regime with laughter.

The Jokers is wickedly funny, pregnant with irony, and perhaps the most indulgent book I have ever read. Their plans give both the revolutionaries and the government fits and amused indifference and mocking nonchalance become heroic virtues. Much like his friend Camus and the philosophy of absurdism, Cossery rejects material gain, but takes the notion one step further to reject the idea the idea that producing anything is worthy of respect–“honest labor” is little more than participation in a system that deadens and kills victims and perpetrators alike. Freedom comes from recognizing society as an illusion, a grand ongoing joke that becomes so dangerous because everyone takes it seriously.

The story is all the more powerful for its simplicity, but Cossery’s praise of indolence can also be disconcerting, particularly, I think, to an American reader. The Protestant DNA of this country and its cult of the producer rejects men like the Jokers as layabouts profiting from the labor of others. Even most Hemingway stories, built around attending bullfights, swimming, drinking in cafes, and fishing, are couched in an interminable need to work. Not so for Cossery. Karim, for instance, makes kites, but because he derives pleasure from it rather than to fund his escapades. Cossery’s Jokers have enough to suit them and refuse to follow the harried footsteps of everyone else. At the same time, though, they do not succumb to sloth. Each of the Jokers is actually exceptionally active and engaged, just with different ambitions as the rest of the world.

One further caveat about The Jokers is also warranted. This is a story about men where adult women are faceless entities, uninteresting to the Jokers except for one exception, a woman who also happens to be one of their mothers. They are interested in younger women who Cossery describes as maintaining a degree of innocence that is lost once they don the accouterments of adulthood. From the little I have read, this is a common critique of Cossery’s work and is a reflection of his personal life. Nonetheless, I didn’t find it distracting for this story in large part because the main characters ooze so much disdain for the entire world that they don’t seem to hold any more for adult women than for adult men. The treatment of women (at least to me) was mostly notable only because the story features an instance of transformation where a young woman crosses the boundary between youth and adulthood. In some ways, the book seemed to imply a generalization that women couldn’t join in the frivolous rebellion inaugurated by the Jokers, but the manner of transformation–one that involves accepting the dress and appearance expected by the petty bureaucrats and playing their games rather than hitting a certain age–suggests that were a woman to likewise reject those trappings she might still fit in with their group. But the story is set in the Middle East and what I just offered is a contrafactual possibility, so it is a moot point, but one worth mentioning.

I loved this book and it has found its way onto my list of top novels. At just about 150 pages, it is a quick read, but funny and a complete story. I could see its indulgence rubbing some people the wrong way, but perhaps those are the people who need to laugh the most.

December 2013 Reading Recap

My progress through Herman Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund has slowed, so I thought to write this post up a bit early. Sometime in January I also plan to revisit my top novels post I did once before.

  • Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis – Reviewed here, Lucky Jim is a comedy of errors. On some level, James Dixon is alienated from teaching at the university because he is surrounded by insane people, but on another he is a college instructor who is wholly unsuited for the position. I had a particularly strong negative reaction to this novel, which is reflected in the review, but the more I reflect on it the funnier the story is and it is likely to appear on my updated list of top novels–even if I still have misgivings about the moral presented about people in academia and what contingent faculty should do with themselves.
  • The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, Junichiro Tanizaki – reviewed here, Tanizaki “explains” on the basis of several fictional sources the rumored, but unknown, sexual desires that drove the eponymous Lord of Musashi to become a successful warlord. I enjoyed the book, although I did note that it seemed to be a solid addition to a secret history genre, rather than a great novel in its own right.
  • Scoop, Evelyn Waugh, a novel satirizing news media, public consumption of news, journalism, and foreign correspondents. John Boot, an author, pulls some strings to get a job as a correspondent in Ishmaelia, an African country on the brink of civil war, so that he can escape a persistent women. But the newspaper hires the wrong Boot, William, a homebody whose writing consists of stories about country fauna. William does take the job and goes to Ishmaelia, where he is a fish out of water. Waugh has some wicked insights about what news is and the absurdities of journalism.
  • The Stranger, Albert Camus – Mersault works hard, he is seeing a woman from work who he might marry, and he gets to go swimming. His mother has just died, but other than that his life could be described as good. Mersault might not say so, though. Life is. His pattern of life changes drastically when he shoots an unknown Arab man on the beach.
  • The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway – One of Hemingway’s incomplete posthumous novels that was heavily pruned from the manuscript form (something like 2/3 of manuscript was cut to create the story in its published form). David Bourne and his wife Catherine are on their honeymoon along the Mediterranean coast of France. The couple is in love and, in typical Hemingway fashion, most of their time is spent eat, drinking, and swimming, sleeping, and having sex. The erotic games really begin when Catherine begins to alter her appearance to more resemble her husband and take control of their relationship and then when she brings a new woman into her marriage. There is an emptiness to this story that is more pronounced than usual, probably because the story was incomplete and because it was so thoroughly trimmed. There are still some things to recommend The Garden of Eden–Catherine is a fuller, more powerful female character than most Hemingway created, he creates a powerful sense of place for a beautiful setting, and the story that remains has some rich irony given the background of manuscript.

As noted above, I will finish Narcissus and Goldmund in the next few days, and after that I don’t know what I will read. As of this writing, tomorrow is a new year and the possibilities are endless.

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.

Orwell and Nature

In a fit of inability to do aught else, I have been thinking about Orwell and idly reading some of his essays. He is most known for his position in industrialized society, not least because of the dystopia he conjures in 1984 (particularly since Animal Farm is a poignant allegory rather than a true account of a farm). His other works typically focus on urban and industrial England. For example, Coming Up For Air is a dark comedy about the comforts of urban life and the nostalgia for lost nature. Sure, nature comes up a fair amount, but the theme is that that nature is a thing of the past. This side of Orwell stands in particular contrast to Hemingway, who is known for his hunting excursions and wilderness adventures–despite some of his most famous works being largely set in Paris.

Nonetheless, it seems that Orwell was more aware nature (as it were) than he seems at first glance. At the very least, his preoccupation with industrialized society seems to have made him keenly aware of the nature world besieged by industry. Curiously, he also indicates in his essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” that his readers did not appreciate any discussion of nature. In fact, he states: “I know by experience that a favourable reference to “Nature” in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters, and though the key-word in these letters is usually “sentimental”, two ideas seem to be mixed up in them.” He answers his critics by pointing out that his interest in nature is not due to sentimentality or his mere lack of familiarity with the soil (there is something to his argument, though he is clearly interested in discrediting his critics and may overplay his hand).

I have no real conclusion here. In Coming Up For Air there is a sense that there are two worlds, neither of which is fully real even though one of those two worlds no longer exists. In “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” Orwell reminds the reader that that the nature world does continue to exist and resist. Though some people may attempt to keep people from enjoying that natural world, they are not allowed to.

“I mention the spawning of the toads because it is one of the phenomena of spring which most deeply appeal to me, and because the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets. But I am aware that many people do not like reptiles or amphibians, and I am not suggesting that in order to enjoy the spring you have to take an interest in toads. There are also the crocus, the missel-thrush, the cuckoo, the blackthorn, etc. The point is that the pleasures of spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing. Even in the most sordid street the coming of spring will register itself by some sign or other, if it is only a brighter blue between the chimney pots or the vivid green of an elder sprouting on a blitzed site…life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle…I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and–to return to my first instance–toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.

At any rate, spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”

Assorted Links

  1. Why Che’s daughter fights to preserve his image as idealistic revolutionary-A story in the Guardian about Che Guevara’s daughter as the 45th anniversary of his death approaches. The article addresses both the bloody legacy of Guevara and the financial success that has come with his image.
  2. How Google Builds Its MapsA story in the Atlantic about how Google has mapped the world, increasingly accurate and updated. The article then suggests that, going forward, the maps (both for the data and applications of the data) will be the most valuable asset owned by Google.
  3. Narrative Trust-An essay in the Time Higher Education about how academics have a responsibility to write clearly, concluding: “If we want our work to be consequential – to have an impact in the world – we owe it to our readers to write with conviction, craft and style.”
  4. ‘Moral’ Robots: The Future of War or Dystopian Future-An article at the Chronicle about an ongoing project to develop a moral conscious for battlefield robots that could be programmed to abide by international rules of engagement and, perhaps, limit civilian casualties. They admit that there would not be any moral reasoning that takes place, but that the machine would make fewer mistakes than humans. I understand what the intention is, but it seems to me as though war is already too impersonal (and therefore easier to enact), so even using machines that can’t shoot civilians does little to ease my conscious on this.
  5. Polished Roughhewn– From the New Yorker, some discussion of the terrain and literature of Hemingway, specifically addressing the variety of techniques he employs that do not necessarily conform to ‘good writing’ in order to create his landscape. This is an article that I agree with, particularly in that there are times when Hemingway’s efforts come across as indulgent and fall flat. They are still Hemingway and it is not as though he put little effort into them, but when compared to some of his other writing (e.g. there are scenes, paragraphs, and sentences in For Whom the Bell Tolls to which I have not yet found peers to in English Literature (though I prefer The Sun Also Rises as a novel)) they come across, at best, as put on or contrived.
  6. That’s Dr. So-and-So to YOu– An interesting note at the Chronicle of Higher Education about academic and professional titulature.
  7. “The Satanic Verses,” the Fatwa, and a Life Changed– An account of Salmon Rushdie’s life and how the Fatwa changed it. The article mostly narrates the period around the release of The Satanic Verses and the aftermath of the Fatwa. This article also helped me make the decision that once I am done with Coming Up For Air, my next fun book will be The Satanic Verses.
  8. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Some thoughts about Paris

Living in Botswana or being a Bonesman does not intrinsically grant anyone insight into the world, but both seem somehow more substantive than watching the world unfold on Twitter from a coffee shop in Columbia, MO. Then again, there is a case that the Lost Generation, watching the world unfold from a cafe in Paris created an artificial sense of nostalgia and culture that is replicable elsewhere. After all, their reputation was created only after their success, and A Moveable Feast is a retrospective. Given an artful commentator, a comparable situation could be created anywhere.

Yet, Paris is exotic. It has a rich history, amazing art, and a sense of gravitas that even Hitler could not pass up. Columbia is not Paris. But, then, in very real ways, Paris is not Paris. Parts of it are. Parts of it can be. But in Midnight in Paris, the background people are meticulously crafted to fit the type, and in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway simply leaves out those people who do not fit. So does Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris. The invisible majority are the non-conformists, ironically. Merely by conforming to another paradigm they are condemned to obscurity as authors and filmmakers glorify and normalize the artificial construct that suits the Paris of the Lost Generation. That Emerald City brimming with culture.

How often does Hemingway go to the Louvre? How often to the Opera? How often to the tourist sites? The answer is rarely, if ever. Orwell’s account of Paris is even more deficient in that respect–he mostly accounts for poor neighborhoods and restaurants. Now, partly this is due to living there. Having lived in Boston, there is something in an atmosphere of a city and you need not do all those cultural events to take advantage of it. Columbia, where, in some ways, I have been coming of age, has its own vibe, but also too much thoughtless drunkenness and trashed streets. At the same time, Hemingway’s two major activities seem to be going to cafes and going to the races. Life is more mundane than the stories, even in Paris.

For a person who often daydreams about far-off places, this has been something I have struggled to reconcile, sometimes. Ultimately, everything is normalized based on what you are used to. One of my favorite memories of Greece was sitting a town square in the countryside watching children entertaining themselves, some on bicycles, some on foot. I know that there were some other tourists in the town (a French couple I had met and walked around with earlier that day made this clear), but there were not hordes of tourists the way there were in Delphi or Istanbul. And yet the town was set beneath the soaring rock spires of Meteora, which was rather exotic. The same way that to urban and suburban people the forests of Vermont are exotic. Perhaps the advantage that Paris holds for the creation of nostalgia and some sort of cultural movement is that it is a location that lends itself to this type of memorialization and thereby eases the job of a commentator (at this point in time, I would also venture that the Lost Generation aids and abets in this mystique), but though it might be more difficult elsewhere, it is not impossible.

Just as there is with the Lost Generation in Paris, there is an allure about those people who were members of Skull and Bones or Scroll and Key at Yale (starting with the fact that they went to Yale), or those people who attend any number of other prestigious universities, or who worked with the Peace Corps, or went on their own to remote corners of the world. The obvious idea of the allure is the experience they had while participating in that activity. A better way of putting it, I think, is that they are the type of people who merited joining a secret society or a great university, or would travel the world for the sake of traveling, or would donate their time. The experience helps, but it is not the experience alone that marks that person, just as it is not the fact that they lived in Paris alone that marks the Lost Generation. Too often the mystique of these organizations or activities causes people to overlook the actual individual, in much the same way that the negative aura of certain activities, experiences, or professions can cause people to overlook those individuals as well.