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.

Silent House – Orhan Pamuk

In the small coastal town of Cennethisar several hours from Istanbul there is an old house, one of the oldest in town. In this house there lives Fatma, a bedridden old Turkish woman who was forced to leave Istanbul years ago because of her husband’s actions, and with her lives Recep, a dwarf, one of her husband’s illegitimate children born to their maid some five decades earlier. For a week every summer the quiet tension of the house is broken by the arrival of her three grandchildren, the divorced historian Faruk, the leftist sister Nílgün, and Metín, a high school student obsessed with the exciting consumer luxuries of modernity. Rounding out this family drama is Hasan, a right-wing nationalist and Recep’s nephew.

The story unfolds over the course of a week as Faruk busies himself in the archives, Nílgün sunbathes and reads leftist publications, and Metín parties with his nouveaux ríche friends. Meanwhile Fatma and Recep are burdened with the memories of Selahattin, with the former being particularly concerned that Recep might be twisting her grandchildren against her. Despite how Fatma treats him, Recep is not threatening her legacy and the children are lost in their own little worlds. There is, however, imminent danger in the obsessions of young men.

Orhan Pamuk’s second novel, Silent House was published in Turkish in 1983 but only translated into English in 2012.  The core plot in Silent House is a variation on a family or dynastic epic, complete with each character representing a different group within the country and three children of different proclivities. At the same time, it differs from the classic examples of such a device (e.g. Hundred Years of Solitude and The Radetzky March), the conflict is compressed into the space of a week instead of dragging out over the course of years.

The style of Silent House is recognizably Pamuk. Each chapter switches between narrators, but interlocks to present a complete story. Silent House also broaches familiar themes, including that Turkey is torn between looking backward and envying countries they believe look forward, but his characters almost too bluntly embody the issues Pamuk wants to address. This is not to say that the characters don’t work for the story, but all of the younger people do not come across as particularly rounded outside what they stand for. The exception to this, and unsurprisingly the part of the part of the book I thought was the most successful, was the relationship between Fatma and Recep, both of whom exist in the present, but who also have the years of memories in which to round out and explain their characters. The younger people had lives outside of the week in the narration, but those lives are hardly explored with the result that their motivations fall back on their types.

All the hallmarks of a great Orhan Pamuk novel are already present in Silent House. The interlocking chapters, the insights about Turkey, and the interweaving of past and present are all there, but the execution is not as successfully realized as in his later novels such as My Name is Red, The Black Book, and Snow. If I had not already been a Pamuk fan I might have struggled with this book. Silent House is still worth reading, but fairly far down my list of favorite Pamuk novels and is certainly not one to start with.

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I am currently reading the second book in Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire. This is a book that has been on my shelf for some time, but I picked it up in light of recent events because it was originally written in Arabic.

The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett

The first, finest, and most famous adventure of Nick and Nora Charles, involving an unknown number of “perfect” crimes and two lovely girls fighting over Nick–and Nora never losing her cool.

One of the things I am most pleased with my reading for this year is getting back into reading quality mystery and noir fiction. A couple weeks ago I found two classic Dashiell Hammett books in a used book store, one of those being The Thin Man.

Nick Charles is a former private eye now in private industry on the West Coast, but is back in his old stomping grounds of New York with his beautiful young wife Nora. Technically, they are there on business, but really just there to drink. While out on the town, Nick’s detective past comes back into his life when he is greeted by the beautiful* young Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a former client, the inventor Clyde Wynant. Her father is missing, and Nick ends up in touch with Herbert Macauley, the lawyer with power of attorney over the Wynant estate, who enlists his help in finding out who killed Clyde Wynant’s secretary. The bulk of the book is spent going in circles as Nick resists getting drawn into the tangle of hostile relationships that traps the Wynants (including mom Mimi and brother Gilbert), but nevertheless solves the case.

[* He describes her as “small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory.”]

I liked The Thin Man. It could have done a little bit better a job foreshadowing the dramatic turn at the end, but that was a minor issue. The story was well-paced and the reveal was satisfactory. The main thing that jumped out at me was the issue of gender, though I was willing to make some allowances for its age. The book cover implied that one of the exciting features of Nick Charles is that he is the object of women throwing himself at him and his powers of observation as a private eye gives him excuse to look at women. Despite my initial eye-roll at the women throwing themselves at Nick, it actually made some sense. The first woman is Dorothy, who was fascinated by Nick when she was twelve and is now a twenty-year-old socialite whose youthful crush is reignited particularly when drunk; the second is her mother Mimi, who was less believable as a flirtatious and “crazy” woman. However, the reason I came around to the dynamics was Nora Charles. More than staying cool, she has a relationship with Nick where they both tease each other about people who flirt with them and Nick never strays. More than that, Nora is not the experienced gumshoe that Nick is, but she is clever, clear-eyed, and talented.

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I am still behind one review, having also finished The Dark Tower. I’m going to start reading something new later today, but haven’t decided yet what that book will be.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon

And just last week, amid the panic and feathers of a kosher slaughterhouse on Zhitlovsky Avenue, a chicken turned on the shochet as he raised his ritual knife and announced, in Aramaic, the imminent advent of Messiah. According to the Tog, the miraculous chicken offered a number of startling predictions, though it neglected to mention the soup in which, having once more fallen silent as God Himself, it afterward featured. Even in the more casual study of the record, Landsman thinks, would show that strange times to be a Jew have almost always been, as well, strange times to be a chicken.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which I finished nearly a week ago, is an idiosyncratic, alternate history mystery novel. The District of Sitka, an autonomous region adjacent Alaska, is the temporary safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in the world. Temporary haven dragged on, for some sixty years, but now Reversion is looming. Although there was an abortive attempt to establish the country of Israel, most of the world’s Jews chose the cold safety of Sitka, which is became a densely populated city composed of widely disparate people from all over the world, loosely unified by the common language of Yiddish. Reversion, and the likelihood that most citizens of Sitka will not be allowed to remain, has tensions running high.

Meyer Landsmann, for the time being a homicide detective with Sitka police, is a mess. He is an alcoholic, divorced, living in a slum of a hotel and without either family or prospects after Reversion, and now his ex-wife Bina has been placed as his immediate superior, tasked with closing all open cases. But he is barely prepared for the mess he finds himself in when one of the residents of his neighbors, a heroin addict and former chess prodigy, is murdered and his new chief summarily closes the case. But Landsman becomes obsessed and, with the help of his partner Berko Shemets, chases every possible clue anyway and soon discovers that the dead man was one of the Verbover clan, an ultra-orthodox crime syndicate that is, oddly, the only group unconcerned with pending Reversion, and was widely thought to be the Tzadik ha-Dor, a potential messiah. This case leads Landsman into a tangled web of conspiracies that expose the seedy underbelly of the Jewish communities in Sitka.

I put down The Yiddish Policeman’s Union simultaneously enamored of the book and unsure that I want to read any of Chabon’s other novels.This book is remarkably idiosyncratic in a way that reminded me of a cross between the best of Joseph Heller and of Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha, but with the atmosphere of noir. It actually took me a while to get into YPU, what with its treatment of a radically different post-World War Two world (for instance, the war ends after Berlin is destroyed with a nuclear bomb) as utterly normal, its frequent deployment of yiddish phrases found in a glossary, and that it extremely particular in its references. None of these are bad and I found that once I got into the book it was both refreshing and provocative, making it fully deserving of its accolades, but that initial buy-in took time.

At the outset, YPU seemed like a clever detective story with the window-dressing of a humanizing story about chess fanatics and the backdrop of momentous changes, but it is so much more. Chabon builds by drips and hints a rich world that, in the best noir style, is filled with characters, each of which with their own motivations. At the heart of this seething, tangled mess are the little relationships, with Meyer Landsman the broken cop who lives for his job and is kept on his feet by people who, for better and for worse, care about him while he seeks some measure of salvation in caring for the young man killed in his building.

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Next up, I finished reading André Malraux’s The Conquerors about the 1925 revolution in Hong Kong and just started Last Words from Montmarte, a posthumous, postmodern, epistolary novel by Qiu Miaojin, a Taiwanese lesbian author. How is that for a mouthful? I am also in the middle of reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, which I am struggling to get into.

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

But Petersburg’s daily round – tranquil, luxurious, concerned only with phantoms and reflections of life – continued as before, so that it was not easy, and needed a determined effort, to form any true idea of the peril and the difficulty in which the Russian nation was placed.

Now that he was telling it all to Natasha he experienced the rare happiness men know when women listen to them – not clever women who when they listen are either trying to assimilate what they hear for the sake of enriching their minds and, when opportunity offers, repeating it, or to apply what is told them to their own ideas and promptly bring out clever comments elaborated in their own little mental workshop; but the happiness true women give who are endowed with the capacity to select and absorb all that is best in what a man shows of himself.

Recently I heard an advertisement for a new War and Peace cable miniseries that touted the story as being the greatest novel ever written. I have also seen that printed elsewhere, and while I would not go that far, I did come away with a deep appreciation for Tolstoy’s epic. Once upon a time I had tried to read War and Peace but got lost and gave up; this time around I persevered and, much to my surprise, found it to be a relatively easy read. There is just a lot of book. As in, more than once I looked up at the page number only to despair that after four hundred pages of story, there were still more thousand left to go. But, each time, the number of pages remaining steadily decreased and, lo, War and Peace came to an end.

War and Peace is too enormous to encapsulate in this review, but I am going to try.

Fundamentally, the story of War and Peace traces the conflict between Napoleon Bonaparte and Russian Tsar Alexander I in war and in peace from 1805 until 1812. Tolstoy presents the conflict as a struggle that the Russian people came to with religious fervor, with the eventual defeat of Napoleon treated with providential reverence.

The narrative unfolds from the perspective of members of the Russian aristocracy who are drawn into the conflict. Some of the lesser characters, such as the tragic Vasily Denisov and valiant little Captain Tushin are among the most memorable, but the story is best understood as following the intersection between two triads, one male, one female. The three men are Pierre Besuhov, Andrei Bolkonsky, and Nikolai Rostov, the women Maria Bolkonsky, Natasha Rostov, and Helene Bezuhov (neé Kuragin). Pierre, the adopted heir to his wealthy, natural father, is one of the heroes of the story, experiencing multiple awakenings as he strives to be the best he can be, often without luck. His wife, Helene, is a Europeanized woman, dressing and acting in scandalous ways, while, in contrast, the other two women exemplify Russian virtues. Natasha is at times flighty, but is the embodiment of beauty and innocence, while Maria embodies religious and family virtue. Their brothers similarly take on the mantle of virtues: Nikolai the (annoying) fervent passion for Russia and the Emperor even as he matures through the story, and Andrei modern European values that evidently are only a virtue in men. War and Peace traces the story of these six characters and their friends and acquaintances.

In lieu of a recap (there is war, peace, war, peace, war again, culminating in the capture of Moscow and French retreat), I want to give a few observations I had about War and Peace

First there was a preoccupation with money. Nearly every character was Russian nobility, and the sheer repetition of “prince” in my translation became tiresome, but few characters were actually financially solvent so money is one way Tolstoy drives them together and apart. On the one hand, it is effective, ratcheting up the tension in the various liaisons, but, on the other, it also repeatedly struck me as ironic given that the book is about a particularly privileged class of Russian society that Tolstoy praises for benevolent paternalism.

Second, one of the running themes as War and Peace goes along is the importance of Moscow as the “Asiatic Capital” of the Russian nation, which Tolstoy offers as the reason that it was Napoleon’s target. Now, Moscow likely did have that much symbolic significance, but it kept striking me that Moscow was not the administrative capital of Russia, Petersburg was. The result, which I don’t know enough whether to credit to Tolstoy, is a dissonance between reality and how the characters talk with reference to the importance of the city. For the Bolkonskys, anyway, Moscow is significant because Napoleon’s line of advance passes directly through their ancestral estates.

Third, some of the most moving scenes from my perspective came during the battles. The characters talk about past battles and great heroes who actions save the state, but their actual experiences are narrated from a tight third-person perspective which turns the battles into noisy, bloody, confusing affairs that, more often than not, leave the participants scared and confused.

Fourth, for all of the sexism, classism, and bias that pervades War and Peace,there are a remarkable number of eternal truths, from the terror of battle, to the advice quoted at the start of this piece, to take the best of what your partner has to offer. There’s a lengthy tirade against historians in the second epilogue, something that is foreshadowed by intermittent asides that might be the result of serial publication, but there isn’t one overarching message in this memorialization of the Russian triumph over France and the west. Instead, the story is pregnant with these moments of profundity as each of the characters tries to do what he or she believes to be best.

In sum, not what I would call the best novel of all time, but well worth reading.



I have still been reading, but the start of the semester and all that accompanies that have caused me to fall somewhat behind on reviews. I recently finished Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire and John Scalzi’s The Human Division, and am now onto Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. I may be playing catchup for a while, but thoughts on those books are coming.

The Russian Girl – Kingsley Amis

This is a somewhat belated review because I finished the book a little bit ago and was then on the road for a bit more than a week.

Everywhere in the world literature is in retreat from politics and unless resisted the one will crush the other. You don’t crush literature from the outside by killing writers or intimidating them or not letting them publish, though as we’ve all seen you can make a big fuss and have a lot of fun trying. You do better to induce them to destroy themselves by inducing them to subordinate it to political purposes…

As soon as originality became important, the days of artistic merit or excellence were numbered. The question Is it any good? had always been hard to discuss, and only to be settled after a lapse of time and by the judgement of the wider public. This irritated intellectuals, who found it easier and more agreeable to ask Is it new?, together with What does it mean? and Is it art?, questions easy to discuss and never to be settled.

Richard Vaisey is a cantankerous but generally respected professor whose academic work is the study of Russian literature. On the surface, his life is great. He has a good job, but is able to live above his pay because he is married to the wealthy Cordelia who, particularly, allows him to indulge in his taste for sports cars. However, this life is turned upside down when the Russian poet Anna Danilova comes to London asking his help. Her brother is in prison, but in the tumultuous years around 1990 she believes that if she can make a name for herself as a poet in London, a public petition would force the government to release him. She just needs Richard’s help introducing her to people and, importantly, making people see the importance of her poetry. There is just one catch: in Richard’s (and most everyone else’s) opinion, her poetry is an offense against literature.

Of course the wretchedness of the poetry does not stand in the way of Richard falling in love with Anna, which leads to the story tumbling toward a potentially explosive conclusion.

The main choice that Richard has to make is between the two women, his wife and Anna. As mentioned above, he hates Anna’s poetry, but falls in love with her force of personality (which he notices at a poetry reading) and with her for more generic reasons. In contrast, everyone in the story considers Cordelia a monster. Richard’s friends repeatedly ask him why he married her since, in their descriptions, she is beautiful, but selfish and talks with a obnoxious cadence that they like to mimic. They repeatedly ask him whether he married her for the money or for the sex. Cordelia and Anna are conspicuously constructed as opposites, but, while some of Cordelia’s actions are genuinely monstrous, the people around her are mean in their own right.

The Russian Girl is a curious book. Like other Amis novels I have read, including Lucky Jim, there is a familiar hook of one “sane” individual amid a maelstrom of chaos. Similarly, it is liberally sprinkled with observations about the decline of the academy and London society. Some of these are insightful or funny, but some cross into mean-spirited or are so specific about a context I don’t know well enough to connect with. The result is that while I liked passages in the novel, I did not like the overall story to the extent that I had hoped.

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Next up, I finished Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear and Patrick O’Brian’s The Far Side of the World while I was traveling. I am also nearly finished with Roberto Arlt’s brilliant The Seven Madmen, a feverish Argentinian story in the vein of Dostoevsky.

Tonio Kröger and other stories – Thomas Mann

all my friends have been demons, hobgoblins, phantoms struck dumb by the profundity of their insight–in other words men of letters

A real artist is not one who has taken up art as his profession, but a man predestined and foredoomed to it; and such an artist can be picked out from a crowd by anyone with the slightest perspicacity. You can read in his face that he is a man apart, a man who does not belong.

No: ‘life’ stands in eternal contrast to intellect and art–but not as a vision of bloodstained greatness and savage beauty. We who are exceptions do not see life as something exceptional; on the contrary! normality, respectability, decency–these are our heart’s desire, this to us is life, life in its seductive banality! No one, my dear has a right to call himself an artist if his profoundest craving is for the refined, the eccentric and the satanic–if his heart knowns no longing for innocence, simplicity and living warmth, for a little friendship and self-surrender and familiarity and human happiness–if he is not secretly devoured…by this longing for the commonplace!

–“Tonio Kröger”

Tonio Kröger and other stories is a collection of six short stories written by Thomas Mann and translated by David Luke. As an aside before talking about the stories themselves, I have a soft-spot for this style of book, namely the Bantam Modern Classic paperback from c.1970 when this was published. The size, page-feel, and covers epitomize what I like about physical books and I have a smattering of them in my collection. Admittedly, they can be a little fragile, but I find something sympathetic about even that.

This collection includes the stories “Little Herr Friedemann,” “The Joker,” “The Road to the Churchyard,” “Gladius Dei,” “Tristan,” and “Tonio Kröger.”

The first two stories are described by the translator as immature works and it easy to see why. This is not to say the stories are bad, but they share a singular preoccupation and do not contain much in the way of subtlety of plot. Both stories fundamentally revolve around young men have created an ascetic life away from society, one on account of physical deformity, the other temperament, but whose worlds are shaken when they meet, fall for, and are rejected by pretty young women. This theme recurs, including in the eponymous story where a young man flees respectable society because the other kids laugh at him during their dance lessons, but those stories do not have the same linear resolution.

A second common theme that unites the stories in this collection is art and artistic sensibilities, particularly in men, versus society at large. Not every story is about artists, though. “Gladius Dei” is about a man who feels compelled by God to condemn the overtly sexual representation of Madonna. The main character is offended by the art that he sees as a perversion, and there is not representation of how the artist feels about it—we are only told that the painting is famous, and the dealer is interested in the print because it will make him money.

Art, as Mann portrays it, is as much a curse as a blessing, since it leaves the artist watching life rather than experiencing life. The artists in these stories never get the girl, so to speak, but are forced to watch in envy, experiencing emotions that are fundamentally different from everyone else. At best the men of artistic temperament (whether they produce art or not) are watchers of people and sad young men; at worst they are bitter wastrels with an over-developed sense of superiority. The most extreme example of this is probably Detlev Spinell in “Tristan,” who is an author who lives in a sanatorium because the company and the decor suits him. Though he is not himself sick there is something sickly about him, as opposed to the healthy men of society.

Mann’s stories and presentation of art simultaneously repulsed and enthralled me. Yet, this translation reminded me just how much I enjoyed Mann’s style when I read Doctor Faustus and reaffirmed my ranking of that book among my all-time favorites. As a final note, it still remains a novelty for me to read short story collections, but also a nice change of pace.

Currently reading: Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. I will finish this one…sometime.

August Reading Recap

When there is time to do so, it is interesting to look at the cadence of life, particularly for those people whose lives are governed by regular and seemingly immutable deadlines that overlap with months of hectic regular activities, followed by periods of empty schedules. I had a dissertation chapter due the week before the semester began and then, nearly two weeks ago, class came back (punctuated by one of my least happily-timed holidays, Labor Day). I like what I do, but but the academic calendar is foolishly constructed for a society where children don’t need to go help on the farm anymore.

Anyway, I’ve been going through this week under the impression that it is somewhere between September 12 and October 15, depending on the day. So here is a somewhat belated account of last month’s reading.

The Towers of Trebizond, Rose MaCaulay

One of the books I picked up because I wanted to read more fiction written by women, the Towers of Trebizond is a novel written in the form of a travelogue. Laurie, the narrator, recounts an ill-fated expedition in the early 1950s led by Aunt Dot and an older Anglican minister, Father Chantry-Pigg. Oh, and Aunt Dot’s camel, who, most people are convinced, is probably deranged. As is the current fad, Aunt Dot is going to Turkey to write a book, but hers is going to focus on the plight of Turkish women (who she will liberate), Laurie is her artist, and Father Pigg has plans to convert the heathens. Along the way, they meet American evangelicals, a BBC television crew, and other authors. As one might expect, the expedition goes awry.

The story was funny and Macaulay erudite when it came to making references to religious and historical contexts and contemporary goings-on. For instance, two of the other adventurers who are supposed to have been in the area were Patrick and Freya, and it is an easy leap to identify those two given names with Patrick Leigh Fermor and Freya Stark. Laurie is a sympathetic character, although, like a lot of travel writing, seems to pass through the environments as a way of experiencing them without really seeming to develop. That you are inside her head for the duration of the story may also account for this impression.

The Towers of Trebizond is a funny and clever book and, as the Amazon blurb describes it, it does investigate “modern” spirituality, but when I read the introduction about MacCaulay, much of the sarcasm and wit became sardonic, overlaid with sadness from her own experiences.

A Sport and a Pastime– James Salter
The story of Phillip Dean, a Yale dropout, and Anne-Marie, his French lover in a town in the south of France, told through the lens of Phillip’s male American friend with whom he is staying. The affair burns while the narrator watches, the young couple seemingly untouched by the problems and responsibilities of adulthood, only preoccupied with themselves.

The book-blurb describes Salter as a master of writing and A Sport and a Pasttime is good (certainly in the Hemingway school of writing), but the most prescient thing mentioned in the introduction is that Salter tells a story that, within that self-contained universe, weaves between truth and fiction, with the line blurred. The narrator is self-described as unreliable, but whether that is because he wishes he were Phillip or with Phillip, or because he is writer spinning a yarn, or because Phillip is imaginary wish-fulfillment or he actually is Phillip, just telling the story in third person, is unclear. I favor wish-fulfillment or that he is Phillip Dean, but it is clear that the idyllic, almost prelapsarian, love-affair is impossible to maintain as the rest of the world tugs away at the couple. I was glad to have read the book, but, honestly, it did not stick with me in the same concrete way other tales of love and obsession have. It did not seem to be dated, which is a complaint I read before picking it up, but rather I didn’t particularly care for any of the main characters. Admittedly, I went in almost more interested in the “town in S. France” part than in the story itself.

The Naive and Sentimental Novelist -Orhan Pamuk

This book is the published version of Pamuk’s Norton Lecture series, where he takes the audience through his experience of reading and writing books (he really loves Anna Karenina). He argues that the thing that holds all novels together and sets them apart from other forms of literature is a “secret center,” that is, the core idea of a novel that makes it work as a complete story and the unspoken message (or moral without necessarily being “moralistic”) of the novel. In fact, one of his critiques of genre literature (sci-fi, fantasy, romance, and you could even add YA literature here) is that the bulk of them are so relentlessly reliant on common tropes that they share a secret center with all the others. There is no need to bristle at Pamuk calling genre literature out as dreck; he acknowledges that the great examples of those genres transcend the tropes and thereby have a unique center and (to me) satisfactorily explains why genre literature may be boring.

Pamuk also goes to great lengths to explore how and why people have such a personal relationship with literature, particularly in that novels require an active give-and-take between what the author put down and the reader–and, if there is no ongoing series, the author is the passive participant once the book is published. The essays are theoretical without being filled with jargon and while much of it would be familiar to people familiar, particularly, with a bit of post-modernism, Pamuk is worth reading. I believe this also works toward explaining my aversion to movies and tv shows based on books I like.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane– Neil Gaimon
Talked about here. Gaimon’s short novel was my favorite book of the month. I don’t know how to say more than I’ve said without giving spoilers, so go read it.

I picked up Don Quixote for the first time at the end of the month and then got busy, so I am slowly making my way through that behemoth (I have the complete an unabridged one). The story opens with the eponymous character drying up his brains and going crazy because he reads the “trash” novels of his day. Between video games and the proliferation of certain genres, cultural critics don’t change a whole lot. It would not surprise me if this is the only book I read this month, though I am looking forward to reading either Old Man and the Sea or The Lives of Tao after this doorstop.