24 September 2012

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk

A very impressive book, though it falls short of the greatness I'd hoped for. Monk's stated intention is to write an intellectual biography, to combine a description of Wittgenstein's ideas with an account of his life, and try to see how the two are related. He doesn't succeed as well as James Knowlson does in his magisterial biography of Beckett, Damned to Fame (seriously? I never posted about that incredible book?), but certainly, this book is a detailed story of Wittgenstein's life, and provides a remarkably clear overview of his thinking.

My main gripe was that the book is plagued with teensy repetitions, phrases that reappear like mosquitoes after a few pages. It's so minor and seems to nit-picky, but it really irked me. Otherwise though, it was a highly absorbing read - you can really get lost in it. It has a slightly melancholy feel - the man was rather tormented - but is also quite inspiring in some ways, the way that all stories of great thinkers tend to be. That single-minded passion, the fierce pursuit of this abstract idea - I can't help wishing for it myself. Reading things like this leads to resolutions to write more and read less - to be undertaken as soon as I finish reading them.

The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Spark

I've been sort of fascinated by Muriel Spark ever since I read this review of a biography of her, which included this amazing quote:

Spark, a late bloomer, didn’t publish her first novel, “The Comforters,” until 1957, when she was 39. It was based in part on a nervous breakdown she had suffered a few years earlier, brought on, apparently, by eating poorly, reading the complete works of Cardinal Newman and popping Dexedrine until she began to believe that T. S. Eliot was sending her threatening messages.

Doesn't that just make you want to find every book she's written and read it?

This one, alas, isn't as good as some of the others. In terms of narrative structure, it's very similar to the vastly superior Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, weaving drunkenly in time, stitching together various characters (also mostly young women), ominously circling tragedy. It's short, 150 pages or so, but it wasn't until around page 80 that I really got into it. Still though, there is something in the way it chronicles the end days of World War Two in London in this almost blithe, background sort of way. It's not a must-read, but it certainly contributes to my sense that reading Spark's entire oeuvre is a worthy endeavor.

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell

I've been inspired to read more Orwell since I started teaching two of his essays, "Why I Write" and "A Hanging," on a regular basis, and I must say, it's a rewarding experience. My friend Russ had told me that this book (which he very much admires) is about how petty differences can divide groups that are struggling against a common enemy (I believe we were discussing liberals in the US at the time). It's interesting, in that while I see how one could read the book and take that away from it, that hardly seemed central to me.

Orwell's writing is wonderfully crisp and vivid. You really do feel as though you know what it's like to be there in the trenches beside him. In "Why I Write," he talks about how he loves description, and would have been content, in another age, to write poems about flowers, so it's not really surprising that some of the most wonderful parts of this book were about mud. I particularly enjoyed the description of getting shot - fascinating stuff. Apparently the bullet basically kills surrounding nerve endings, so the bullet hole itself doesn't hurt, but whatever other damage it causes very much does. Orwell has this way of addressing the reader directly, but without any smugness or self-righteousness. It's extremely appealing.

As for the story itself - I know very little about the Spanish civil war, and to be honest, most of what I got out of this book is how very difficult it is to actually know something about it. Orwell really emphasizes this - how murky and unclear things were, and especially, how inefficient the spread of information was. Quite a contrast, one imagines, to modern day warfare. At least, one hopes. One of his major points throughout is that journalists completely misrepresented the whole thing (because they often didn't know what was going on, and were reporting second-hand information) and actually exacerbated the conflicts, turning various sides against each other. He registers his outrage over what seem like senseless deaths (he does not see death on the battlefield as senseless), but without getting overly hysterical or melodramatic (it's quite an English book, in that way).

Basically, if you're going to read one book about the Spanish civil war, this is not a bad choice. If you're going to read one Orwell book, this would not be my first pick, but it's nonetheless pleasurable.

16 September 2012

The House in Paris, by Elizabeth Bowen

Let me say up front that I read this book knowing almost nothing about the plot beforehand, and that this lack of knowledge, though it initially made for some confusion, was ultimately a very rewarding way to experience the story, because what is so impressive about the book is the way it constructs the plot. And that's what I'm going to talk about in this blog post, so if you haven't read it, you might want to stop here.

Let me also say up front that the book definitely reflects the weird anti-Semitism of its time. It is occasionally distasteful, and I imagine that plenty of ink has been spilled deliberating over just how messed up it really is. I am not all that interested in continuing that debate, but I do think one needs to at least acknowledge that the characters in the book have a worldview that is sometimes pretty gross.

So, having gotten those preliminaries out of the way: it took me awhile to warm up to this book. The prose isn't as beautiful as that of Bowen's other works; it has that carefully wrought quality, but it just doesn't rise to the same level. What it does have though, is the trademark Bowen tip-of-the-iceberg quality, where what seems like a drawing room story turns out to have quite the murky depths. In essence, the book is about a set of tangled relationships, which produce an illegitimate child. The genius of the book though, is that rather than telling it in chronological order, the book begins with a completely different, unrelated child who happens to be the casual bystanders (one might say collateral damage) of a day of reckoning years later. So as you read, you're focused on this other child, Henrietta, who has very little to do with the 'actual' story. This makes the story a really interesting reflection on children and how they deal with the adult world (and how the adult world deals with them). It vaguely made me think of both Ian McEwan's Atonement and A. S. Byatt's Children's Book.

There's also this weird gothic quality to the novel. It's slightly overdramatic in some ways - I think it would have been more effective if it had been left subtler - but it's decidedly creepy and quite interesting. One might reflect on how the theme of hereditary curse gets reworked here; it's not quite supernatural, except inasofar as any person who is so toxic to everyone around them seems profoundly evil in a not-of-this-world sort of way. The terrifying figure of the resentful, lonely, tyrannical woman, yowzers.

Elizabeth Bowen really is vastly underappreciated. She belongs in the modernist canon as one of the greats, I think, but you rarely see her mentioned there. This is not her finest work, but it's an interesting one nonetheless.

10 September 2012

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

I don't read mysteries all that often, but this one came so highly recommended by a friend of mine that I decided to check it out. The description also said that it was a compelling exploration of the ups and downs of a marriage, which seemed promising. And indeed, the book delivered. It's a terrific, gripping read, though it does peter out somewhat at the end.

I don't want to give anything away - and by the by, try to avoid reading or even glancing at the table of contents, because it does give a lot away, which is frustrating - so I won't say much about the plot. The basic story is that a guy's wife disappears suddenly, and the book begins by interspersing his account of her disappearance with her diary entries. Their marriage has been somewhat rocky, and the novel is heart wrenching in its portrayal of a floundering relationship. That, more than the disappearance, is what makes the book so absorbing, though the mystery is what makes it a page turner.

Without giving anything away, I'll just say that the final 1/3 or so didn't live up to the rest of the book - the psychology of it suddenly turned simplistic and not at all believable. Right as you're hurtling towards the end, when the thrill of suspense should be at its max, it starts to seem... juvenile? Prurient? It not only failed to convince me, all of the characters suddenly flattened into cliches. Disappointing, especially because the first 2/3 are so much fun. Still though - worth the read. Especially well suited for beaches or long flights.

07 September 2012

The Radeztky March, by Joseph Roth

Such a beautiful novel. It's atmospheric, yet moves at a surprisingly brisk pace, sometimes jumping years ahead with little to no warning. The characters are opaque in some sense yet deeply familiar and sympathetic. It is simultaneously a large scale historical novel about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a rather moving portrait of a father-son relationship. The prose, to me at least, is just breathtaking. Here, a passage chosen at random:

She plunged into the acrid coal fumes, the whistles and steam of the shunting locomotives, the busy ringing of the signals. She was wearing a short traveling veil. She had the feeling such veils had been in fashion fifteen years ago. She was wrong: it was actually twenty five years - not even twenty! How she loved waiting on station platforms. (273)

It reminds me somewhat of Flaubert (not just because this passage could easily have come from Madame Bovary). The translator, Michael Hoffman (apparently he is a poet?) has done an absolutely incredible job. Interesting as the novel is as a portrayal of historical milieu, the real reason to read it is to bathe in the sentences, let them roll over you. So, so wonderful.