Thursday, September 21, 2017

Comments on The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This novel has real strengths and real drawbacks. It recounts suffering and resistance of two sisters, their father, and communities of associates, friends, and loved ones in France during the invasion and occupation by the Germans in WW II.  The action is mainly set in a small country town, but also in Paris and other rural parts of France.  It portrays movingly the grinding preservation and degradation of the French people as the war goes on with respect to practical matters like getting enough to eat, but also to persona feelings, like fearing for loved ones, or social and cultural loss, like the loss of faith in society.

The prose is generally clear and eloquent and every few pages are graced by tellingly beautiful and effective metaphors.

Three plot lines sometimes support and intensify one another and sometimes overlap and obscure one another. At the heart is the story of two sisters who respond to the early death of their mother and the emotional crippling of their father in very different ways.  One is rebellious, an actor-outer, whereas the other bargains everything for security.  Their father is himself the victim of the trauma of serving in the French army in WW I and the early death of their mother.

The second line of plot is the participation mainly of the rebellious sister in the resistance to the Germans, in particular her smuggling Allied airmen out of the country, which provides a lot of tense scenes.  The stay-at-home sister eventually, and somewhat out of character, becomes involved similarly in saving Jewish children.

The third line of plot is a frame story involving an ill, old woman in Seattle in the present day.  The reader's uncertainly about her relevance creates minimal tension.

The characterization in general is clear and moving. In the case of the sisters and their father, it reaches beyond being clear into being unremitting. Certainly every few pages from beginning to end the author informs us of how the sisters have responded differently to their different lack of parenting and how they feel about one another.

During about the time I read this book, I read, or rather audited, Arnold Bennett's novel The Old Wives Tale.  It too is about two sisters, one of whom is, in her 19th century English fashion, rebellious and adventurous, while he other is a stay-at-home.  It establishes the difference between these two sisters and their attitude towards one another and their difference in the first 50 pages of a very long novel, and after that simply lets us see how it plays out.  Hannah would've done well to follow similar strategy; we get tired of her rehashing these family differences.  The same thing applies to their relation to their father, which Bennett establishes and anchors its importance in the beginning of the novel.  It remains a live issue without our having to be told about it.  This economy leaves Bennett free to develop a whole world.

One of the virtues of The Nightingale is the portrayal two German officers who are stationed in a small town and become involved with the sisters.  The difference between the two officers is fully realized; one is a loyal German but a decent human being troubled by the war and his role, the other is a sadistic bastard.

I happen at the same time to be reading another relevant novel, Heinrich Böll's group portrait with lady, which very fully portrays the life of middle-class and other Germans during the war, and how it changed as the war approached its end, as Hannah portrays so well in France.  Böll's method of characterization is very much more complex than Hannah's.  Böll creates as a character an author like an investigative reporter who compares and contrasts the various accounts of the various characters by various other characters.  Just as we don't see eye to eye on one another, his characters do not see eye to eye on one another and he reports it.  The results are a very nuanced and multidimensional portrayal of the individuals and of their world.  Hannah's focus on the two sisters and certain aspects of their relationships seems narrow and repetitive by comparison.

The frame story of the ill, old woman in Seattle is a tease.  The reader comes to believe perhaps halfway through the novel that she one or the other of the sisters and the uncertainty is only resolved at the very end.  The whole frame story is unnecessary and unlikely. Hannah never explains how she got to Seattle many years after the main events of the novel.

The story sometimes falls into melodrama. For example, two lovers are reunited as one is about to die, á La Bohème.

So reading the novel was in part frustrating. I wish the author had stopped redwelling on the family relations, effectively established, which would have freed her cover some of the other complex cities of the German occupation of France, for example the role of those French who were perfectly happy to have the Germans arrive and save them from communism and Jews.  The frame story was simply an unnecessary and improbable obstruction.  But still is a moving book, with flash of wonderful writing and a moving portrayal of the suffering of war.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Comments on The Enigma Variations by André Aciman

They are not mentioned in the text, but I believe the title refers to the composition by that name by Edward Elgar, the late 19th-century English composer.  Elgar's popular piece, it's been recorded over 60 times, consists of 13 variations on his original theme; each variation is supposed to be a portrait of someone known personally to Elgar.  Several friends are rendered in the novel, but I take the enigma in the novel to be passionate infatuation.

This is a novel of twists and turns.  Aciman is the novelist of crushes: “Will she/he, won’t he/she?  Does she/he, doesn’t he/she?  What did she/he mean by that?  Am I attractive enough?  Am I enough?  Am I?”  The protagonist is high on these questions.  And, as with other highs, sometimes exhilarated, sometimes crushed.

I’m going to be explicit about the twists and turns below, so beware of spoilers.

His first novel, Call Me By Your Name, is about the summer homoerotic crush of an intellectual Italian teenager on an older student.  His long and masterful novel Eight White Nights is about the coupling/failure to couple of a heterosexual pair in wealthy, intellectual circles in Manhattan who fail to go beyond falling in love for 368 pages.  Like The Enigma Variations the book is related by title enigmatically to another work, Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name, but turning to the Dostoyevsky answers no questions.

As in Eight White Nights, the tension, what would be the plot tension in a mystery, in The Enigma Variations lies in the question of how or if the protagonist will resolve himself as a lover.  Whom and how you love is central to his being a person and is always uncertain and anxiously immanent.

The book has five sections.  In the first, as a young teen-ager he has an unconsummated crush on a local craftsman, who, after  his father’s death he discovers to have been his father’s lover.  In the second he is tormented and intoxicated by jealousy over the relation between the woman he is living with and an unknown man.  It turns out the interloper is gay and interested in him.  In the third section he is tormented by timidity over approaching a guy he sees on the tennis courts.  He finally does.  In the forth section he is living with his tennis friend, but it is no longer a crush.  This section explores his history of desperately intense flinglets with a woman he knew in college.  From time to time in life they meet, go off together, make love, but always clench away form one another.  This is, so-to-say, a chronic crush.  The last section advances the protagonist to middle age.  He is in deep flirt with young writer, a mentee, but is as timorous as he was in the first section, unable to declare himself.  In e-mail exchanges the guy he had been living with urges him to seize the moment (as the reader silently urges the protagonists to seize the moment in Eight White Nights), but he can’t.  As in the fist section, their relationship is unconsummated.  In the first section it was unconsummated because of the maturity and commitment of the craftsman, which is rooted in his affair with the protagonist’s father.  In the last section it is rooted in the marriage of the protagonist to a woman who was a background character in earlier sections, which marriage is only uncovered at the end.  We discover it only at the end because his agonies of eagerness and uncertainty remain so convincing; so much part of him even thought he is married.

The novel is in first person.  The characterization of the protagonist is the vivid, tense experience of seeing the world though the details of his tremulous infatuations again and again in varying respects.  We experience the other characters through dialogue and gesture, but we most of all know them through how they shape the fantasies of the protagonist, as if he were nervously writing and rewriting character sketches of them.

Aciman’s prose is thoughtful, supple, and suited to the readers' needs of the moment.  A well-known scholar of Proust, he can thread meaning in long sentences:

“And there’s the bridge at last, vaulting the harbor under the shadow by the piers, the good, staunch, loyal bridge that understands and forgives and has always known, as I have always known, that what I really long for this evening is neither to be on this side of the river nor on the other bank but on the space and transit in between, the way after speaking of Russia’s White Nights it wasn’t of nightfall or daybreak that Gabi had sung but of that fleeting hour between dusk and daylight which we all longed for on our balcony on this undecided evening that wasn’t winter or summer or even just spring.

He can also apply the little, shaping hammer strikes of short sentences:

“I want you to know my name.  I want you to know I’m five lockers down from yours.  But as soon as I see you, I freeze.  Should I look, or pretend not to?  Should I speak, or say nothing?  Better say nothing.”

Monday, June 26, 2017

Pedro Páramo

The brief novel Pedro Páramo by Juan Rolfo is deeply beloved in Mexico. Its standing has been compared to Don Quixote in Spain and The Devine Comedy in Italy primarily for two reasons. First, it is the first novel (1953) to give voice to the rural poor. Second it dramatizes the trembling veil between the living and the dead that permeates Mexican culture. 

 In the larger context of Latin American and world literature it is admired as the godfather of Magical Realism. Borges considered it to be one of the greatest texts in any language, while García Márquez, who “could recite the whole book, forwards and backwards”, acknowledges it as the breakthrough that allowed the inception of One Hundred Years of Solitude: “the examination in depth of Juan Rulfo’s work gave me at last the way that I sought to continue my books”.

"That night I didn't sleep until I'd read it twice; not since I had read Kafka's Metamorphosis in a dingy boarding house in Bogotá, almost ten years earlier, had I felt so thunderstruck"
- Gabriel García Márquez

"The essential Mexican novel, unsurpassed and unsurpassable ... extraordinary."
- Carlos Fuentes

The basic story is that the protagonist, an ordinary guy named Juan Preciado, returns to the town where he was born to find his father because he promised the journey to his dying mother. But his father is long dead. At first the town seems deserted, but a woman offers him a room and he then begins to meet or overhear conversations or dreams of other people who are the dead of the deserted town including his hostess. He himself dies halfway through the story and narration continues in fragments of third person narration.

The story behind the fragments of conversation and narrative is the life and death of a town. It centers on the patrón, Perdro Páramo ("Páramo" means something like 'wasteland'.) who is the son and grandson of local landowners.  Very young he is in love with a child-hood friend named Susana San Juan who does not return his love, marries another man and leaves town. Páramo marries the mother of the initial narrator in order to settle a large debt. Never ceasing to love Susana, Páramo grows in viciousness; killing people who stand in his way, seducing and raping other woman. He fathers a number of illegitimate children. The Mexican revolution breaks out and splintered, armed groups ravage the countryside.   On the death of her husband, Susan returns to town but then dies herself, throwing Pedro into despair.  He owns the town but refuses to nourish it. All along and step by step the local priest despairs over his right to give absolution especially when Pedro pays him off to do so.

Several movies exist, the most notable directed by Carlos Velo, with a writing credit to Carlos Fuentes ( It mainly follows the plot in real time as in my summary above. The result is something resembling a stereotypical Mexican soap opera with plenty of shots of men with little mustaches and big hats packing guns and riding prancing horses, of women in luxurious peasant blouses, and of emotional confrontations with an emphasis on the difference of gender roles.

But that is not the experience of the reader. The place is the death of the town. The time is years that do not succeed one another-; events endure in timeless ambiance. A working title, The Murmurs, more evokes the reader's experience than the name of the villain. The initial narrator and the reader are exposed to the thoughts, dreams, and self-describing dialogue spilled out the dead in the order of revelation, not the plot, in the mood of violent, desperate and constricting privation. Rulfo declines to orient the reader in a chain of causes and consequences. All consequences are immersed in nostalgia, longing, death, and loneliness.

The characters are like etchings, we do not see deeply into them, we see them compassionately as hard, grey lines; we remember them more than we understand them. It is their communal history we remember, not thier individual stories. They are the dead, which many rural Mexicans feel as immanent, invisible presences, rapt, unabsolved. Death was cheap in rural Mexico in those days, and today still is; we daily read of new mass graves uncovered.

The prose is clear and beautifully simple (Media Luna is Páramo's hacienda):

I am sleeping in the same bed where my mother died many years ago; on the same mattress, under the same black wool blanket that used to cover both of us when were sleeping.  Then, I slept by her side, in a little place she made for me under her arms.
I think I still can hear the slow pulsation of her breathing, and the sighs with which she lulled my sleep...  But none of that is real.  I am in a black box like those they use to bury the dead.  Because I am dead.
I can feel the place where I am, and I think...
I think of when the lemons ripen.  Of the wind in February breaking the stems of the bracken when the lack of care makes it dry up.  Of the ripe lemons filling the patio with their odor.
The wind came down from the mountains on those February mornings.  And the clouds were up there waiting for the weather that lets them fall down into the valley, leaving the blue sky empty, so that the light shines down with the wind, making circles on the ground, blowing the dust, and rocking the branches of the orange trees.
And the sparrows chirped; they pecked the leaves that the wind had blown off the trees, and they chirped while they did that; they left their feathers on the branches, and they chased butterflies and chirped some more.  It was that time of the year.
I remember the February mornings full of wind, and sparrows, and blue sky.  That was when my mother died.  I probably shouted and my hands must have been torn to shreds after wringing out my despair.  You would have liked the way things were.  But maybe you were not happy that morning.  The wind blew through the open door, rustling stems of the ivy.  The hair between the veins on my legs began to rise, and my warm hands trembled as they touched my breasts.  The sparrows were enjoying themselves.  In the fields the corn was waving in the wind.  I felt sorry that she would no longer be able to see the wind in the jasmines, that her eyes were closed to the light of day.  But why was I going to cry?
Do you remember, Justina?  You had arranged the chairs along the side of the corridor for the people who would come and wait for their turn to say goodbye to her.  But the chairs were empty, and my mother was alone in the center of the candles; her face was pale, her white teeth were barely visible between her red lips that were hardened by the chill of death.  Her eyebrows were motionless, the same as her heart.  You and I were praying endlessly, without her hearing it, nor did you or I hear anything, since all was covered by the sonority of the wind that night.  You ironed her black dress, starching the collar and the cuffs so her hands would look fresh when they were crossed over her breast, her loving breast where I once had slept, that had also given me something to eat, and that palpitated, soothing my dreams.
No one came to see her, but that was for the best.  Death is not something that you offer as entertainment.  No one goes around looking for sadness.
Someone knocked on the door.  You went out.
“You go,” I told you.  “I have a hard time seeing things clearly.  And tell them to go away.  Are they coming for the money from the Gregorian Mass?  She didn’t leave any money.  Tell them that Justina.  She will not be able to leave purgatory if they don’t hold these Masses and pray for her?  Who are they to enforce justice?  You think I’m crazy?  That’s okay with me.”
“And the chairs you set up were still empty until we went to bury her with those men we hired who were sweating under someone else’s weight.  They lowered the coffin slowly; they covered the grave with damp sand, while they were refreshed by the cool wind.  Their eyes were cold and indifferent.  They told us how much it would cost.  And you paid them, like one who is buying something, untying your handkerchief that was damp with tears, and was now wrapped around the money for the funeral...”
And when they left, you kneeled in the place where her face was now, and kissed the ground; and it could have made a hole in the ground, if I hadn’t told you: “Let’s go, Justina; she’s somewhere else now; here there is only a dead body.”

Later in the book, but at no clear time, Susan thinks, "It was as if the night were being dragged back and forth by the restless breath of the wind."

The presence of the events in reading are like the presence of events in memory. We remember stories, but we do not in any moment remember our life as a story. Try to tell it and you'll see. In our minds memories are what's going on in our mind, a succession of incidents and images, particularly of people, like beads spilled on the floor and taken up together in our hands.

In its disassociated structure and well as its incidents and characters, this novel projects the haunting sadness of the oppressive and violent history of rural Mexico.  One way to look at the structure is as response to trauma. The trauma of Páramo’s oppression of the townspeople, and the related trauma of the civil war. Disassociation is a common consequence of trauma.

You can read this book as a puzzle. Rolfo is giving you clues as in a mystery novel or a thriller and you can work out what happened. Or you can open you mind to a night of vivid and unsettling revery. Or both. Pick up Pedro Páramo. Read it. If you are confused, read it again; it's short. Know you are holding in your hand something intimate to the character of Mexico.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Y observador tan agudo

Corazón tan blancoCorazón tan blanco by Javier Marías
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

El misterio anunciado en la primera oración da impulso a una serie de reflexiones y dudas sobre las relaciones humanas, en la voz de un narrador — interprete y traductor profesional — especialmente sensible a las connotaciones de cualquier discurso y sus silencios. Desbordado por los secretos de los otros, y por sus dudas sobre si realmente lo son, este narrador busca un inalcanzable equilibrio emocional, muchas veces por acciones que lo ponen en ridículas y hasta muy cómicas situaciones. Porque hay bastante humor, mezclado con ironía y horror, en este hilo de observaciones agudas y divagaciones que tiene tanto de ensayo como de novela. Las oraciones suelen ser muy largas, con cláusulas que cuestionan una primera interpretación y obligan al lector a pausar y pensar. Eso sí : el misterio al final se explica, y los encuentros aparentemente inconexos (una noche en La Habana en viaje de novios, un episodio en el apartamento neoyorquino de una mujer deseperada por ligar con un extraño, las anécdotras del padre del narrador, etc.), se conectan. Pero todo eso ha sido poco más que el pretexto para incitar al lector a pensar sobre muchas cosas, incluyendo especialmente el lenguaje que usamos y si o cómo nos obligan unos a los otros a amarnos. Es un placer, para saborear cada oración y oír trabajar un cerebro hiperactivo.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

To save the NEA and NEH

All of us who care about literature or any of the arts, we cannot permit the killing of the National Endowments of the Arts and of Humanities. Here's one way to protest: by signing on to the Authors Guild letter to the U.S. House and Senate. Thanks, from me and all creators.