Marking the end of an era: ‘The Radetzky March’ by Joseph Roth

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‘The Radetzky March’ has been on my reading list for simply ages.  Last summer I wrote about my expectations of Roth’s classic as ‘an Austro-Hungarian ‘War and Peace.’  I can now confirm that this is a terrible description of the novel, but then again unfulfilled expectation and disillusionment are what Joseph Roth are all about.  Fortunately, nobody writes them better than him.

This novel begins with an uncharacteristic moment of triumph.  A humble infantry lieutenant sees the Kaiser’s complete ignorance of self-preservation during the battle of Solferino (you don’t look through field glasses with the sun shining on you, providing a clear target during a lull in fighting).  He acts instinctively, pulling the monarch off his horse and taking the bullet in his own shoulder.  It is a life changing moment and the solider is promoted straight into the aristocracy.  This is a Roth novel however, so splendour will always be undercut by irony.  While the war ended well for the new Captain Joseph Trotta von Sipolje, it was a crushing defeat for his beloved emperor.  The rest of the novel will trace Austro-Hungary’s painful demise, the Kaiser growing older but not wiser as his empire fragments around him.  The tragic heroes will be Trotta’s son and grandson, brought up to perpetuate their patriarch’s fanatical loyalty to the regime but destined to witness its downfall.

The petty humiliations that pave the way to the novel’s end, mid-way through World War I, are too numerous and wonderfully drawn to do credit to here.  A special joy for me was seeing young Trotta manage to make a pig’s-ear of every adventure befitting a dashing Austo-Hungarian aristocrat.  From his affair with a married older woman when still a school-boy to a dramatic duel at his first military post to his experiences as a dissipated man-about-town in pre-World War I Vienna, Trotta suffers through them all.  Like the empire he tries to adore, he simply cannot live up to the macho expectations of his position.

It may not be an Austro-Hungarian ‘War and Peace,’ it’s at least 500 pages too short for that accolade, but ‘The Radetsky March’ is a wonderful book of both personal and national tragedy.  I’m planning on reading a lot more translated German-language literature in the coming months, but I can’t imagine I will encounter much to match its tragedy, depth or resonance.

Note: I’m a couple of weeks late with this post – Joseph Roth died just over 70 years ago and if I had been more organised I would have marked the anniversary.  Still given how out-of-date and past-it’s-moment everything in this book was, a slight delay and feeling of missing the opportunity is probably appropriate.  It’s never too late to enjoy Joseph Roth’s writing, even if the world he was describing was to end within his own life-time.

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Posted in Joesph Roth, Reading in translation | 2 Comments

And the 2019 Woman’s Prize for Fiction goes to – ‘An American Marriage’ by Tayari Jones

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‘An American’ Marriage’ begins with a quote from the wonderful Claudia Rankine ‘What happens to you doesn’t belong to you, only half concerns you.  It’s not yours. Not yours only.‘  It’s a lesson to challenge the characters of the award-winning novel.

Take Roy, whose narration opens the book.  When he claims ‘if you’re going to be black and struggling, the United States is probably the best place to do it‘ you’re willing him to avoid learning how misplaced his confidence is.  Later on, when his wife Celestial swears he is innocent of the rape with which he has been charged, you share her disbelief that her own experiences can be so disregarded.  And throughout, the question of who a person’s story, integrity and love belong to is challenged on a personal and a national level.

Roy and Celestial each get to at least give their own story as the book swaps between their first person narration of events, most memorably, in a middle section comprising letters written to each other.  It is always a pleasure to see the epistolary form make a come-back in  modern novels (like the diary form, used to such great effect by Helen Fielding with ‘Bridget Jones’).  Although I admire Jones’ restraint in keeping this section short, it was my favourite part of the novel, often revealing more about characters than they might wish and given additional power by the knowledge of their intended audience, a sense of purpose that is occasionally missing from the rest of the novel which uses conventional, undirected self-person narration.

‘An American Marriage’ is a moving story about an important topic.  The plot twists may not be unexpected, but they are often dramatically satisfying, forcing the characters to learn and grow though without diminishing the social relevance of the subject matter by suggesting that all struggles can be overcome and the injustices be simply resolved.  I suppose my main criticism is that quoting Rankine is always going to set up an unfair comparison.  ‘An American Marriage’ is not Citizen although it is set in the same world.  Instead it is an accomplished novel that I hope many will read and enjoy, and I’d be interested to hear if others feel it was the right book to win this year’s Woman’s Prize for Fiction.

Posted in Baileys Prize, Tayari Jones | 1 Comment

For your consideration: ‘Kudos’ by Rachel Cusk

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Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline’ is one of the most quietly experimental novels of recent years.  Through muted, almost alienated prose, it presents the most powerful evocation of depression and isolation I think I have ever read.  Of course, once the character, tone and style had been established, the next challenge was for the novel’s sequels to show progression.  ‘Outline’ was followed by ‘Transit’ a book which was less pure in both ambition and execution – depression may be hard to convey, but it is at least consistent.  Gradual recovery means abandoning precariously sustained passivity and so ‘Transit’ is a more uneven read, if not less accomplished then certainly striving for an aim which is never going to be wholly satisfying.

‘Kudos’ is the conclusion of the triptych.  The name implies a celebration, but the book is not so simple in how it considers endings, achievements or rewards.  Around half-way through the novel, a precocious college student subjects the protagonist to a disquisition on the complexity of the term:

‘As I was probably aware, the Greek word ‘kudos’ was a singular noun that had become plural by a process of back formation: kudo on its own had never actually existed, but in modern usage its collective meaning had been altered by the confusing presence of a plural suffix, so that ‘kudos’ therefore meant, literally, ‘prizes,’ but in its original form it connoted the broader concept of recognition or acclaim, as well as being suggestive of something which might be falsely claimed by someone else.  For instance, he had heard his mother complaining to someone on the phone the other day that the board of directors took the kudos for the festival’s success while she did all the work.’ 

This kind of monologue will be familiar to fans of the earlier novels, but there are some key differences.  Although scarcely more talkative, Cusk’s protagonist is now more active.  She is not humiliated or confounded by the public events demanded by her profession and seems keenly, if quietly, aware of her own deserved status and standing.  Like the women who surround her, she may be talked down to or sidelined, but this does not diminish her agency.  In the previous books, she often reflected impotence or frustration back to those who confided in her, now she reflects determination, strength and a will to succeed on her own terms in a man’s world.

This is not to say that very much happens in the book, or that inner conviction can always prevail against the forces that confront it.  ‘Kudos’ is after all still a book by Rachel Cusk, so the stylistic achievement is one of minimalism and stillness rather than fireworks or dramatic gestures.  The key point is not to underestimate its power.  Like the women whose lives it evokes, ‘Kudos’ is celebration of individuals and a collective, while still dealing with worldly recognition, false glory and usurpation.  It may not have surpassed ‘Outline’ as my personal favourite, but it is richly rewarding book, one that is worthy of its predecessors and a true testament to Cusk’s sensitivity and craft.

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Finding the monster ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ by Ahmed Saadawi

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Mary’s Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein‘ tells of a monster created by a hubristic scientist out of scavenged, beautiful body parts in a doomed attempt to demonstrate human ingenuity.  The result was an abomination who has nonetheless gone on to capture the hearts of readers for over two centuries, revealing as he does his own tortured humanity in contrast to his apparently admirable and ambitious creator.

From Boris Karloff to Tim Burton, new generations have interpreted the monster for their own times, but it’s hard to find a more accomplished recreation than Saadawi’s utterly up-to-date Iraqi re-telling, in which the figure haunting Baghdad is said to be made up from body parts recovered after bomb blasts, and brought to life by a multicultural city’s collective wish for humanity, national cohesion and revenge.

As with Shelley’s novel, ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ exists in a world that straddles the scientific and the supernatural.  The beginning is laugh out loud funny, taking the form of a ‘final report’ about the work of the ‘Tracking and Pursuit’ department (‘partially affiliated to the civil administration of the international coalition forces in Iraq‘).  It seems the department had been a) employing astrologers and fortune tellers on high salaries to identify security threats b) leaking documents relating to these activities to ‘the author.’  It’s a set up that promises joy to any lover of gothic literature, not least the assured blending of fact and reality that frames so many classics of the genre.

Saadawi’s novel does not confine itself to gothic tradition however, instead it updates it.  The thrill of the book is not horror (though there is a lot of that, the first chapter after the ‘final report’ opens with a bomb going off in the middle of busy civilians trying to go about their weekly routines in the centre of Baghdad).  Instead its power comes from the balancing of the absurd with the tragic, the humour of daily life and the power of politics, religion and love that infuses it all.  There is an action story inside there, and also the heart-braking narrative of a lonely woman coming to terms with her son’s death.  Both are given appropriate and equal weighting in a book which updates the complexity of the best of classical Gothic novels with the modern and all-to-real issues of a specific city in the 21st century.

I learned about ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ when it was shortlisted for the Mann Booker International Prize last year and I feel it is a testament to the importance of such awards.  Translated brilliantly by Jonathan Wright, it made me laugh and came very close to making me cry through its sensitive yet outrageous exploration of life surrounded by death.  If you want to understand Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein,’ read ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad.’  And if you want to understand what the best of current fiction looks like, follow my example and hope for more books by Saadawi to become available in English soon.

For a far more insightful interpretation of the story – you can read an interview with the author here.

Posted in Ahmed Saadawi, Gothic Literature, Man Booker International Prize 2018, Reading in translation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What is seen and what is missed: ‘Closely Watched Trains’ by Bohumil Hrabal

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It’s hard to talk about Bohumil Hrabal’s books – partly of course, this is due to an English lack of confidence with pronouncing his name, but it’s also because they are just so disjointed and odd, with clear, catchy titles belying their opaque and bewildering narratives.  In the past few years I’ve read ‘I Served the King of England’ and ‘Closely Observed Trains’ both short novels and yet both so full of tangents, tone changes and what feel like Czech in-jokes I’ve never felt able to review them.

This week is the #1965 club though (hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book), and Hrabal’s novella ‘Closely Observed Trains’ fits the brief.  It seems finally time to put my impressions in some kind of order and attempt to structure a post about a book whose style continually contradicts and subverts the mechanical and regimented promise of its title.

‘Closely Observed Trains’ opens in 1945; the Nazis have lost command of the air-space over the narrator’s town, but continue to control the rail-lines, keeping them in ‘close surveillance’ to guard against delays and sabotage.  This sounds like it should be a job for Hašek’s ‘Good Soldier Švejk,’ whose good-humoured willingness to follow orders wreaked havoc with the Austro-Hungarian army’s efforts in the first world war.  Hrabal’s novella however is less pointed and more complex than Hašek’s earlier Czech classic of passive resistance.  While those around the narrator are profiteering from the situation (opportunistically removing the accents from their names to fit in with the Germans, using metal from shot-down Nazi planes to make roofs for rabbit hutches) poor innocent Miloš is less able to keep up with the confusing world in which he lives.

His confusion is passed on to the reader through Hrabal’s pabeni writing style – a form of stream of consciousness in which anecdotes flow without necessarily ever ending or showing why the narrator happened to think of them at any specific time.  For example, we learn a lot about his father and grandfather’s eccentricities, before hints start to appear about Miloš’s own life.  It’s a short book and I don’t want to spoil the plot, but young Miloš is a junior railway worker whose personal struggles with adolescence seem to echo the national feelings of impotence and frustration of his historic moment.  At times he attempts to take drastic measures against this state of affairs, and these tragic moments of agency frame the narrative.  Ultimately, even the clearest cut actions become mired in black humour and conflicting agendas; poor Miloš does not seem to understand either himself or those around him, and this disorientation is passed straight on to the reader.

I can’t say that writing about the novella has helped me understand it, but it has helped me appreciate its craft and ambition.  The fact that a novella about train schedules can be so unreliable, directionless and generally unstable is in itself both charming and audacious, two adjectives highly appropriate to Hrabal’s writings.  For a book about undermining authority it succeeds on every level, including the authority we usually expect from an author or narrator and the security that comes from knowing where you are in their story.  Hrabal won’t deliver these, but he will give you a breathtakingly accomplished vision of trauma and resistance, well worth discussing despite being impossible to describe clearly.

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Note: I’ve illustrated the post with the wonderful European Classics edition of the novella, even though I actually read the Abacus edition (trans. by Jiří Menzel).  It was a purely subjective choice – I just prefer this image – even though I realise my referring to the book as ‘Closely Observed Trains’ (Abacus’s title) rather than the alternative ‘Closely Watched Trains’ (European Classics title) could cause confusion.  Trust me, this is nothing compared with the potential for misunderstanding within the book itself.

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A dizzying read: High-Rise by J. G. Ballard

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I’m finding it’s good to read a J. G. Ballard novel every few years.  More frequently might not be healthy, but thoughtfully dispersed they offer a dazzling view into a disturbingly recognisable world that throws everything else into the shade.  After reading ‘The Empire of the Sun,’ I really got the impression that Ballard knows he’s probably the only person who thinks and feels the way he does, but he still wants to share his demented priorities and passions.  All he asks is that his readers suspend their disbelief; the fact is that his obsessive, destructive characters may not resemble anyone I know, but they do seem to reflect the reality of their creator and so feel frighteningly realistic, even as they … well, you really have to read the books to find out exactly what they do but it’s pretty grim, societally unacceptable and almost certainly extremely unhygienic.

With ‘High Rise’ he throws you into this world from the wonderful first sentence: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Lang reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.‘  It feel like a statement of intent; the Hollywood rule is that you can do what you like to men (and certainly to women), but you must never alienate your audience by killing the dog.  Ballard is having none of it.

In fact, a different dog is involved in the first mysterious violent event we learn of, near the start of the three months which take the tower block from aspirational community to apocalyptic hell hole.  It turns out that when man’s base instincts are unleashed the last thing he needs is a best friend.  Then again, the power dynamics of conventional relationships are presented throughout the novel as factors that will either shatter or sustain the survivors of this destructive experiment in modern living.

Although surrounded by death, it is the exploration of life that permeates the novel, as violence permeates the claustrophobic setting.  Life as a communal activity, life as an individual’s fight for survival, the inner psychological life and the ways in which life cannot be quantified or contained.  Throughout the book, the high rise itself seems to be alive, exerting terrible pressure on its captive inhabitants, simultaneously attractive and repulsive.  (It’s one of those Ballard things.  Reading the book, I found nothing attractive about the tower, but the inhabitants themselves are clearly seduced, unable to leave and increasingly caught in a dependent, destructive relationship with the physical structure itself.  Imagine Jack Torrance in ‘The Shining’, without any ghosts or history, but also without the snow to offer any excuse for staying.)

The book is short and the premise simple.  The inhabitants of a modern, self-contained building start to go through their own stages of societal evolution, or devolution, depending on your point of view.  As the title demands, there are layers to the story.  I read somewhere that the three main male characters embody different levels of the psyche, with the building’s penthouse-dwelling architect as the superego, the brutal, unstable documentary film-maker who originally lives in the lower levels as the id and the dog-eating Dr Lang as the ego.  It’s an intriguing interpretation and a testament to Ballard’s craft that it really doesn’t cover half of the weirdness of his novel.  And if you’re wondering what role women play in this model, like I say, you have to read the book.  Just be aware that its very Freudian and very disturbing (or possibly not Freudian at all, but still disturbing.  Like I said, there are layers).

I wouldn’t want to stay for too long in a J G Ballard novel, but they really are invigorating places to visit.   After a long bath, a lot of fresh air and a decent amount of exposure to the more normal world, I’m looking forward to venturing further into the works of one of the most original writers of the last century.

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‘Absent Place – An April Day’: My Dickinson poem of the month

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I love April and I love daffodils, but I have often struggled with poems that only focus on the sublime or pretty aspects of spring without allowing space for the season to be difficult.  This feels especially true at the moment.  A few years ago my April poem of the month was Robert Browning’s ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad.’  Even if you’re not familiar with the whole poem, you may know the first lines: ‘Oh to be in England, now that April’s there.’  Given how fraught England currently is, it just doesn’t seem appropriate.

Instead, my 2019 April poem is by a very different poet, writing about very different emotions.  Emily Dickinson’s poem is not about comfortable belonging, but about impermanence and illusion.

Absent Place—an April Day—
Daffodils a-blow
Homesick curiosity
To the Souls that snow—

Drift may block within it
Deeper than without—
Daffodil delight but
Him it duplicate—

As with my favourite Dickinson poems, I don’t read it in search of full understanding or meaning.  It’s not about a coherent narrative, that’s what prose is for, instead her lyric poems convey emotions through beautifully crafted, often unexpected, images and symbols.

We begin with the idea of an absent place which is contrasted with, or shown to be the same as, an April day.  It’s not clear if this is an absent place in space or time, but this sense of something lacking will haunt the short poem, full though it is with evocative images.  We are then presented with daffodils, then snow, then daffodils again, the daffodils always plural, the snow at the heart of the poem, a deep blocking weight.

Again, it may be something about where I am at the moment, but I love the chill at the centre of this poem as much as I love the ‘delightful’ image of daffodils around it.  Daffodils (Latin name ‘Narcissus pseudonarcissus’) are the eponymous flowers in the myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection and was turned into the flower that bears his name, always turning down to stare into water.  This gives a cool terror to the idea of duplication which closes the poem.  The myth of Narcussus is all about a shallow appreciation of surfaces rather than depth, bringing us back to the idea of absence in the opening words.

As I said at the start of this post, I really do love April and its most famous flowers.  I also however love the way Dickinson invites us to step back and look beneath the surface, for the challenges and also the seductive attraction beneath the confusing changeability of the season

Posted in Emily Dickinson, Poem of the Month | 2 Comments