Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

A shortish story

March 12, 2011


At the top of the world we could see as far as we pleased. It was winter at that place and it was not hot. Yet the sun was close enough and we had to take care with our skin. I wore a hat with a wide brim, long-sleeved shirt and sunglasses, stiff jeans and shoes bought for the occasion. I had more clothes in my rucksack. Towards the east, past the mesa, shimmering and unreal, we glimpsed remote snow-covered mountain ranges. Our guide told us that rich Argentineans used to go there to ski. It wasn’t without dangers, but they were rich and did not think of the bad things, the things that can happen.

Here there was no snow. Too dry. I felt slightly dizzy, strange, but knew that it was because I stood four thousand metres closer to heaven than I was accustomed to. The few primitive houses we sporadically witnessed were not different than they had been two thousand years ago. Or three thousand years. The gods were the same. It was so flat up here, that if it hadn’t been for our heavy breathing, there would be no way to convince our minds of the height. I wouldn’t have been surprised to lay my ear to the ground and hear a faint licking of waves.

With all this available space, it struck me as tragic that all the people who had once lived here, or lived by travelling here, had been pulled towards the capital where they lived on top of each other in decrepit slanting houses that cost them a lifetime of salaries, angles askew and if the rains hit hard, the houses tumbled down, as in some cruel fairytale, down into the valley on top of the rest of the houses already doubled up, and everything was poverty except from the few who lived behind fences protected by armed guards, blood and an elevated caste. The white are the problem, our guide said. White was his word for those with Spanish blood. This, at least, is the opinion of many, he said, hedging his sentiment. I worked hard, studied for many years, and now I have a good job and can take care of my family. I’m doing OK. I am surviving well, our guide said.

We both expressed as clearly as we could that this was a good thing indeed, in the overcompensating way that people from better economies have of encouraging those of more modest means. Our guide smiled, and as usual, I could not tell whether he secretly were laughing at us; whether he smiled in a mutual feeling of insight, or if the twitch around his mouth were caused by a bitterness we would never be able to share. Soon it was time for him to leave us, but first he put up our tent. So that we didn’t have to.

Are you sure this is what you want?, he asked. The nights get cold, but you have sufficient clothes and I can see your sleeping bags are of a high quality. This is good. However this place is not the same in the night, after it is dark. They say the air is so thin here that the spirits of the dead cannot soar higher, up to the heavens. They are trapped here and they can’t find their way to the mother of all, who would welcome them. The spirits, they roam free here on the meseta- yes, plateau – and there is nothing to stop them, no trees or walls or mountains, so they run in circles, never finding the way to the earth mother. Imagine that a spinning top has been started and it never stops, swirling forever without resistance.

I raised my eyebrows. All day he had talked about the religious traditions of his people, what they had done a thousand years ago, or what he presumed that they had done. Whenever we saw a ruin and asked about its meaning, the answer was unfalteringly that it had been used for religious rites and ceremonies. The sun, the moon, astronomy; everything gods and goddesses, and the people here had built their lives around them, for them.

He had gathered several armfuls of thin firewood and had thrown it all in front of the mouth of the tent. You can by all means light a fire , he said. There is not much vegetation anyway, so there is no danger. Be careful, though, if the wind gather the strength, as you say. He looked upward at the sky which still was pale blue. It is going to be colder, he said.

The dust he whirled up as he left followed the car for several kilometres in a continually increasing tail and remained on the horizon long after the car had disappeared. I turned to my wife and held her. She let me hold her. Then we begun to look around, as if for the first time.

Everything was completely quiet, as if the thin air forbade the sound to breathe. The sound of what, I thought. I escaped from the illusion. We heard our own steps on the hard soil, sometimes sand, sometimes scattered tufts of hardy grass. A couple of kilometres back, we had seen llamas graze, so there had to be arable land a few places. Of course, I thought, just look at the ruins of the clay houses. How else would people survive here? People need grass.

It is not clay, had the guide said when I had pretended to be familiar with the local building techniques, but excrements. That was their way, how it was done before.
Do they still build in this way?, my wife had asked.

Those who still live here, yes they do it in the same way. Not many of them are left now. Things haven’t changed. Just fewer of them. Fewer people, less life. He held his hands open towards us, half in resignation, half to include us. This is our land, he said. What we have left. Less life, fewer people. Many gods. Maybe the gods have also moved to the city. At this point I began to fear neither my Spanish nor his English was up to the task, so I released him from the conversation.

The dust from the car had almost disappeared now. I was hoping for a bit of wind. I began to stack some of the bigger pieces of wood until they formed three quarters of a pyramid. I placed dry weaker twigs underneath. My shoes were covered in sand. Such a pity that there was not more grass around here. I thought about the gods trotting useless and restlessly back and forth. Spinning, a trail of smoke. I thought about everything that had once been here, had existed. I looked around for more firewood, there must be more someplace. Already by the thought of fire I could hear the heat crackling and smell the heat and I fumbled for my lighter. I had been tempted from the moment he threw the wood in front of the tent. I wanted to light a fire on this continent. As the night came I wanted to see it burn.

Film and Time Travel

March 9, 2011

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in“. – Always good to start and end with a Henry David Thoreau quotation…

For all intents and purposes, we can say that the modern time travel story began with H.G. WellsThe Time Machine (1895). Modern is another word for science – as opposed to magic – and thus, I guess, I’m speaking of science fiction. For stories about sudden movement in time to qualify as a modern time travel story, there must be, then, a speculative idea about time with some sort of connection to science, no matter how strenuous.

The concept of moving back and forth in time is not a new one. (Yes, we all move forth in time, but you know what I mean…) In the Nihongi, a Japanese collection of early myths and tales up until 697 AD, we find the story Urashimo Taro, about a fisherman moving hundreds of years through time. Washington Irving’s famous story Rip Van Winkle (written in 1819), is about a man falling asleep to wake up a hundred years after. And everyone knows Charles DickensA Christmas Carol (1843), in which Ebenezer Scrooge is taken back and forth in time to witness his own past and future. There are many more examples, with perhaps the Norwegian/Danish Johan Herman Wessel’s play Anno 7603 (written 1781) the most extreme in length of the journey through time. What all these stories have in common is that there is little to none scientific explanation for the chronistic anomalies. Mostly people just fall asleep and wake up in another time than their own. In Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the protagonist is transferred in time by being hit on the head. In Anno 7603, the young couple is transported through time by a fairy; neither a very scientifically sound means of transport…

Well’s The Time Machine is a science fiction novel that has stood the test of time better than many of the author’s other novels. His The Sleeper Awakes can be tough going at times, and as alluded to by the title, is yet another time travel book in which the means of transportation is a long, long sleep. (I think one could do interesting work interpreting the role of sleep in pre 20th century novels and stories). Anyhow, as I thought I should dedicate this post to time travel in films, The Time Machine serves a double purpose, as it is also the first (to my knowledge) mainstream film about time travel (1960). There were examples of time travel films in the silent era and in the 1930s, but these also lacked a certain science in their fiction, so to speak.

Without really having reflected too much on this, I think time travel can serve as a narrative device in almost any kind of stories: The Adventure story, The Comedy, The Thriller, The Drama. Of course, when time travel is introduced, these genres will often be overlapping, and perhaps it is typical of a pulp genre, as science fiction really is, to be gregarious, shall we say, in its handling of narrative strictness. Almost apart from these genres is the pure science fiction story, in which the concept of time is more than a narrative device to get a character to go from B to A, or from D to R. This is what I am tempted to call the hard science story, in which the time travel phenomenon is at least attempted to be explained as something more than the effect of a flux capacitor, and in which the consequences of temporal travel is given its due.

The Back to the Future trilogy contains a bit of all the genres, for example, but falls mainly into the adventure category. Still, there is probably no film that has done more to explain time paradoxes to generations of movie goers. The Terminator films also span a bit of all categories, but are first and foremost thrillers, while Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is, in spite of its title, pure comedy. Of the hard science films dealing with time travel, I can’t think of more than Primer, with perhaps Donnie Darko and 12 Monkeys close behind as what I’ll call serious entertainments.

“I’ve been on a calendar but I have never been on time.”
(- One of a number of Marilyn Monroe quotes I hope really belonged to her and not to some publicist…)

Characters on film can time travel for a number of reasons, they can travel far or very, very short. In Galaxy Quest, 13 seconds back in time is sufficient to avert catastrophe. Often one chooses to go to historically significant years, or periods easily reproduced on film. In Peggy Sue Got Married, it’s back to the 1950s, same in Pleasantville and Back to the Future. Perhaps because of the already mythological familiarity we have with this seemingly more innocent (American) time.

Often, it’s humans from/in the future who travel back to our time; perhaps to comment on contemporary mores from a pseudo-futuristic viewpoint, but not least to save a dollar or two in set design. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, is an example, 12 Monkeys another. In the various TV series incarnations of Star Trek, time travel has occurred quite often, beginning already in the fabulous original series (1966-69). By the way, The Voyage Home is jolly entertaining, at least if you are an Original Series fan!

Another possibility is people from the past travelling to our time, usually because of some freak accident of nature, as the technology is less likely to be available in the past. Two examples and decidedly mediocre films are Kate & Leopold and the French Les Visiteurs. I would instead rather recommend the highly entertaining Time After Time, in which H.G.Wells (played by Malcolm McDowell in one of his few sympathetic portrayals) actually invents a time machine, but unfortunately brings Jack the Ripper with him to present day.

Unfortunately, films about time travel are generally seen as lowbrow entertainment by many critics who should know better, but what can you do? It’s not like they are educated to be critics; no school for that… I still remember an article by the leader of the Norwegian film critics’ society, in which she gave the excellent Donnie Darko 1 of 6 stars, calling it “a terrible film about a rabbit and some time travel nonsense“. It still makes me angry to see that kind of ignorance being spouted by someone whose opinions are actually paid work. (As an aside, she similarly rewarded David Fincher’s Se7en with the solitary star…)

“Time flies like the wind. Fruit flies like bananas.” A bit by Groucho Marx serves to chase my bad temper…

A reason for the low esteem many so called critics – serious or not – hold of time travel films, is of course, that a number of these are very bad films indeed, and make few attempts to elevate themselves from the worst of their pulp origins. However, I do think that the percentage of good vs. bad films in a given genre is rather high when it comes to our current topic.

A couple of reasonably budgeted failures: The One, Déjà Vu and Timecop. While I like Jet Li very much, his English-speaking films have generally been more miss than hit. The perceptive reader will, perhaps, object that The One is more of parallel realities than Time Travelling, but I feel that the two concepts almost always overlap, so I’ll allow it here…The One is under no circumstances among the proudest entries in Li’s filmography. For a better film about parallel realities, see the Korean 2009:Lost Memories… Or, perhaps, the uneven The Butterfly Effect.

While Timecop is far from the worst entry that Jean-Claude Van Damme has blessed the silver screen with, it is indubitably a bad film and brings little of value to the genre. Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu, on the same hand, is so bland that it is forgotten the moment the credits start rolling; the opposite of what one wants from speculative fiction concerning time travel and paradoxes.

“Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life“. – William Faulkner.

One subgenre of time travel is where the protagonists don’t travel through time at all, but are, by some almost magical object, able to communicate with the past. In Frequency, it is an old radio that unites father and son, in The Lake House, it is a mailbox that can send letters from the would be lovers back and forth in time. I’ll also mention the romantic cult favourite Somewhere in Time, where Christopher Reeve hypnotises himself back in time by surrounding himself with old clothes and furniture. This mystical aspect can bring this kind of film closer to the fantasy-genre, than to SF. I don’t quite know, for example, where to place Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious but not perfect The Fountain. Some films are sufficiently complicated – or arty – that we can’t even be sure whether time travel actually is supposed to take place – suffice to mention 2001 – A Space Odyssey.

What, then, are the good time travel films? I’ve tentatively written a list of 10 and then some films, as lists of this type always go to 10. I have cheated, though, by including some sequels. These are a mix of entertaining and cerebral, with 12 Monkeys and Donnie Darko best combining the two traits, with Primer being cerebral, and the rest at the very least jolly entertaining. I guess some would have liked me to include yet another Terry Gilliam film, Time Bandits, but I’ve never managed to really like this, hard as I’ve tried.  Note that two of my choices deal with monkeys – or apes. Hmmm. Don’t tell Sun Wukong

Back to the Future (really all 3 of them)

Terminator (1&2)

Time After Time

Planet of the Apes (original 1969 version, of course)

Los Cronocrimenes


12 Monkeys

Donnie Darko

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
Henry David Thoreau, “Economy“, Walden (1854).

Summer Reading: Part 7

September 2, 2010

The last book on this list of books I read this summer, mostly during my three week stay in Spain (Sevilla, Cordoba, Grenada, Mallorca), is Franklin Jarlett’s biography of Robert Ryan. Ryan is, I guess, my favourite film star ever, so I devoured the book in a day.

This is the only biography of Robert Ryan that I know of, at least in English. Like so many, he eventually became more popular in France due to the re-evaluation by the Cahiers du Cinéma – gang. This was a fate he shared with one of his directors, Samuel Fuller.

The biography is pretty much what you would expect and is a solid presentation of Ryan’s life. Jarlett is understandably a very positive biographer, highlighting the generosity of Ryan and talking in some length about his liberal political and social activism. If you are going to write a biography like this, you have to be a bit admiring of the man you are spending time portraying. In Ryan’s case, I see no reason not to be admiring. He seems like a rock of normality in a Hollywood so often driven by fame and superficiality. Ryan was more the down to earth type, but Jarlett does manage to let us glimpse the man outside his films.

Jarlett writes about how contemporaries like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster made big careers for themselves, partly by taking an active part in setting up their own production companies, but not least by actively chasing roles with star potential. Ryan always seemed too modest for this. After his breakthrough role in Crossfire, where he played a racist thug, he was often typecast as unsympathetic or borderline psychotic characters. Jarlett writes well about how this possibly precluded Ryan in getting the same kind of stardom as the above mentioned gentlemen. He manages to show us the few occasions where Ryan expressed a certain resentment or regret about this. While never bitter, he mostly regretted not being offered more quality films, for too many years having to play in films not worthy of his talent just to earn an income.

Unlike some biographies, in this case, I think you definitely have to be a fan to enjoy the book. I’ve read autobiographies by John Huston, Roman Polanski and Samuel Fuller that were all so well written and downright exciting, that the reader could enjoy them cold. For one thing a biography is not an autobiography, so the genius of the protagonist is not necessarily reflected in the tale. Jarlett’s biography of Ryan is sturdy and solid, but lacks perhaps some spark or reason to read for the non-Ryanist. The book is also split in two, where the first half is the biography, and the second part is a “critical filmography”. This latter part is very handy for scholarly purposes, but also for the above average Ryan-fan. All his films are included, with full technical specifications (cast list, company, year, producer, screenplay, etc.), followed by abstracts of contemporary reviews of the film in question.

Jarlett’s language is not particularly adventurous, but serves its purpose. I am, however, left with a feeling that there should be more to this tale, and all biographies are indeed tales. For one thing, the characters never really come to life under Jarlett’s pen. Just because one is writing about real persons, doesn’t mean that the text magically will transform them into full-bodied specimen on the page. There is enough here, though, to mourn both Ryan’s lack of roles and his premature death of cancer at the age of 63. Jarlett seems to have talked to all the relevant players and I guess that this is the only Ryan biography we will ever see, as many of the interviewees have since died, such as John Frankenheimer. (The book is from 1990). And I have to compliment Jarlett for having both the inclination and the stamina to write this book, as I can’t think of a single movie star more deserving of a biography and critical filmography than Robert Ryan. If you are a fan, you should definately read this biography.

I don’t think I’ll write much more about this book now, as I plan to write a longer post about Robert Ryan at a later date. If you are at all curious about the man and what he was able to, I’d suggest the following films:

Act of Violence (dir. Fred Zinnemann 1947)
The Set-Up (dir. Robert Wise 1949)
On Dangerous Ground (dir. Nicholas Ray 1951)
The Naked Spur (dir. Anthony Mann 1953)
Inferno (dir. Roy Baker 1953)
House of Bamboo (dir. Samuel Fuller 1955)
Billy Budd (Peter Ustinov 1962)
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah 1969)

I could mention many more, but in these, at least he is given a bit to do and they are all very good films. Inferno is a personal favourite of mine, but should be caught in 3-D. It is still the best film I have seen in that format. For once, the technology actually worked to enhance the story, letting us experience the desolation and aloneness in the middle of a brutal unforgiving nature. Act of Violence is another favourite. It is one of the best and truest Noirs I have seen; instead of a femme fatale, though, there is a histoire fatale, to put it a bit wankerish. I will, I hope, explain these choices, together with his other roles, in a later post.

Well, that was that for this year’s Summer Reading. I hope against reason, that these posts have not been boring to the point of suicide. I think I’ve written about 10.000 words now, in about a week, so that was a bit more than the quick overview I had planned. Perhaps these books are not all what one would consider suitable for lazy days at the beach or slumbering afternoons under the shade, but all in all I’m satisfied with my choices. This year, I actually aimed for readability and more or less accessible literary works, rather than the more convoluted narratives I’ve sometimes brought with me on my vacations. Maybe this means I’m getting even more lazy…

Summer Reading Part 6: Kazuo Ishiguro

September 1, 2010

As hinted in yesterday’s post, the other English writer I read this summer, was Kazuo Ishiguro. Never Let Me Go is his latest novel, although he has since released a collection of five short stories almost long enough to be called novellas. He has a Japanese name and parents, but having moved to England at the age of five, he hardly speaks the language and is an English citizen. The two cultures are not necessarily all that different, sharing an affinity for understatements and tea, reticence to show one’s feelings and, at least traditionally, politeness.

Ishiguro likes to think of himself as an international writer, meaning, I suppose, that he can be understood all over the world. And that is certainly true, but I still have to disagree a bit with Haruki Murakami when he describes Ishiguro’s books in this way:
“In other words, the place could be anywhere, the character could be anybody and the time could be any time. Everything supposed to be real could be unreal, and vice versa. It is a sensation I love and I only receive it when I read his books.” (The Guardian, Saturday 19.February 2005).

Unlike Murakami, I feel that there is in Ishiguro’s language possible to detect an almost super-Englishness, which might be on purpose in those of his novels set in England, but which doesn’t exactly seem to support the claim that the characters could be “anybody“. Everything is either very English or very Japanese, to the point that the novels – and characters – come to represent an aura of nonreality in their very strong national connotations, be it in language, mannerisms or social/cultural mores.

There is, however, nothing wrong or bad about this. Ishiguro might at one time seem more English than Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Enid Blyton put together, while, when moving his plots abroad, he is suddenly more Japanese than Ozu. I wrote in another post about how Ishiguro by his own admission has learnt more of Japan from the films of Ozu than through any actual experience. Maybe this explains why the Japan of his first two novels seems so recognizable to us in the west; because it is a mediated vision that we have learnt to see in the same way as the author; through film and art. After writing his first two novels in this way, it’s like he played the same trick in presenting Englishness, making it hyper-real, so to say.

However, this is neither here nor there, if you’ll pardon a mediocre pun. I think both his first novels; A Pale View of the Hills and An Artist of the Floating World, are masterpieces. They are very economically told with hardly a superfluous phrase. Perhaps the “twist” ending of A Pale View of the Hills is not quite validated by the foregoing narrative, but I can’t really be sure. Ishiguro has himself said that he didn’t want people to sit with the novel as some sort of crossword puzzle, trying to fit all the pieces. So I shan’t. I am more than satisfied to accept the ambiguities at the end. (The word ambiguity used in relation to novels, often is another word for narrative laziness, but I never felt that in this case.)

I wrote, as mentioned, another post about these books about a year ago, so I’ll move on, in an uncharacteristic fear of repeating myself (too much).

The reason I chose to mention Ishiguro immediately after the post about Magnus Mills, is that it is possible to comment on a number of similarities between the two authors apart from their nationality. Both present literary worlds that at first seem equal or very similar to our “real world”. After a while, though, it becomes clear that there is some flaw in the written world; there is something slightly different; askew. The novels pretend that these flaws are part of normality, that the foreign introduced element is, in fact, imminent and natural to the world, thus making us forget, or masking, that the novel’s worlds are not ours.

To put it in other words, the novels’ different way of seeing the world is made un-different. The illusion of normality negates denial and forces acceptance. (By God, if these sentences were not highfalutin! Pretentious is another word for it…) Anyhow… This acceptance is what creates the unhomely – or estranging – effect of the books, and is something I feel these authors have in common.

In Ishiguro’s novels, the flaw in the world is often created by unreliable narrators, or narrators not seeing the entire picture. In Never Let Me Go, the female narrator sees much less than the entire picture. In Mills’ novels, we find fewer of the unreliable narrators, more of the limited view point. Still, in both authors’ works, the tension created and satisfaction of the read, is for a large part connected to decoding the element that makes their literary worlds different from ours.

In the Ishiguro novels that I have read, this is most clear in When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go, but also in his first two novels, the unreliable narrators serve to heighten our uncertainty about what exactly is happening, and whether we can trust the presented world view at all. In Ishiguro’s case, the reader is made to feel smart by this act of decoding. We are not merely following the action or enjoying the precise language, but have to be playing the detective as well. If I should say something negative about Never Let Me Go, it is that I feel the reader is too far ahead of the story, that we learn the story – and about the world in which it is taking place – faster than the narrator. At the end, however, it turns out that this might be on purpose, as even with the whole picture, she just has no way of understanding the full implications of the story we have been told. This actually adds another layer to the tragedy of the novel.

You’ll notice that I try not to say much about what any of these novels are about. The reason is twofold: I don’t want to spoil the reading experience, as there is a mystery connected to the telling of the stories in itself, and secondly that there is such a thing as Wikipedia, where one finds all the summaries one wants. Mind, I often advice against this.

A final thing in regard to the likenesses between Mills and Ishiguro: I think it was while reading Never Let Me Go, that I began to re-evaluate Explorers of the New Century. There are a number of parallels between the two which could be interesting to study. One takes place in green and lush England, while the other in an uninhabitable northern no man‘s land (not to be confused with the island Nomans Land in Massachusetts…), but the subject matter is actually closely related. Were I still a student, I think I could do worse than compare the two. As I think of it, the novels were even released the same year, not that this is particularly meaningful.

There are, however, differences between the two. For one thing, I suspect that Ishiguro is the better author. At least in the sense that his books seem more carefully plotted and less made on the go. With Mills, one doesn’t get the same feeling of every incident having importance for the end result. Rather, it is more of a series of incidents that, while certainly having a cumulative effect, don’t always feel indispensable or not interchangeable. Perhaps I feel this as I am now thoroughly familiar with the typical pattern of a Mills book, and therefore less surprised by yet another example of the absurdity of his portrayed ideological systems.

Also, with Ishiguro, I detect a different kind of pathos behind the carefully composed sentences. There is a more palpable sense of tragedy, a more immediate way of engaging our emotions, even while the characters refuse to do so. Perhaps because the characters refuse to do so.
Never Let Me Go is highly recommended. Both Mills and Ishiguro writes in a very accessible way and should by all rights outsell any Dan Brown. Luckily for us, they also write very well (unlike Mister Brown). May they continue to do so! Ishiguro used to think that a writer had a window of opportunity between one’s 30 and 45 years of age wherein one could write really well. He is now 55.

Summer Reading Part 5: Magnus Mills

August 31, 2010

While I tend to read mostly American novels, this summer I also had a brief visit in Britland, with Magnus Mills and Kazuo Ishiguro in defence of the queen. In Magnus Mills’ case, I’ve now read all his books, so there is not much more I can do than to wait for the next one, should he choose to continue his literary career. Luckily, in the case of Kazuo Ishiguro, there are still two of his novels that I have not read. So there is something to look forward to… Here are some thought about Magnus Mills and a bit about his final novel, The Maintenance of headway.

Mills’ literary debut, The Restraint of Beasts, was nominated (or short listed, as they call it) for the Booker Prize and Whitbread Award (two of Britain’s most prestigious literary prizes) and even managed to win praise from Thomas Pynchon, a man who customarily likes to remain invisible outside his books.

Mills worked as a fence builder in Scotland for some 6 or 7 years before moving to London to become a bus driver. The success of The Restraint of Beasts allowed him to focus on his writing career for a while, but soon bored, he took a job driving vans. In the meantime he wrote more novels and two extremely thin collections of short stories. After the van business fell apart, he returned to his old job as bus driver, which he still does, considering writing a hobby.

Already in The Restraint of Beasts, we are introduced to Mills’ particular deadpan style. Comparisons have been made to Kafka and Samuel Beckett, but Mills seems his own creature. For one thing, he is much funnier than these. While there certainly are similarities, there is enough of a difference to regard his writing on its own merits. Beckett’s and Kafka’s writings are mostly absurdist, presenting an exaggerated reality which, while allegorically rich and interesting, is still recognizable as not real, to use an oxymoron. Mill’s tales have tended to be closer to reality, with the artistic and estranging effect lying in language itself and in how people react to everyday occurrences.

The absurd in Mills’ stories needs no talking insects to be felt. Neither are the characters living on garbage heaps, but tend to be as normal as can be, preferring a trip to the pub; the pub being the apex of social interaction, of your claim to be a member of society. All of Mills’ characters are social creatures, or wanting to be. The rules of social conventions (one of them language, another social interaction, a third work ethics), however, are examined by presenting them as unbreakable, and with sometimes fatal consequences for the unlucky few who manages to get a convention wrong.

At the release of his debut novel, much ado was made about his being a “writing bus driver”. Reading these articles today, I feel that they can’t quite hiding a certain condescending tone, as if having a normal, blue collar job would be inconsistent with having literary talent, even preclude it. Oh, well.

The Restraint of Beasts’ narrator is put in charge of two ruffians as they roam the countryside building fences for a Scottish company. Tam and Richie, as they are called, are sceptical to rules, preferring to do things their own way and in their own tempo. The end of any good working day is an opportunity to down a significant number of beers, and this, perhaps, is as worthwhile a goal as any. At least Tam and Richie feel so, and they accept begrudgingly the company of their new foreman, our narrator, in their alcohol filled sojourns. This would all be well and good were it not for their unfortunate habit to kill a number of people along the way, all by accident, mind. The matter-of-factness of these killings is contrasted by the extreme seriousness of the workers’ seemingly mundane and at times meaningless tasks: “The high-tension fence is the way forward”, he was saying. “The prospects of the company depend on it.” Dead bodies piling up or no, the rules have to be followed, and it is up to our narrator to instil these in his two underlings/partners. However, the two week trip to install a new fencing system in England might be fraught with unknown horrors, or perhaps it is just business as usual after all.

All Mills’ books work as well as they do because of the authorial voice he has found. It can’t have come easily. He spent several years working on his first book, rewriting and polishing it until ready for publication, and it must have been a challenge to get the tone so right. If I were to be critical, I’d have to comment that he has kept to this same voice through all his novels. The subject matter and theme might be slightly different, but the voice and mannerisms of the characters remain practically unchanged.

All the novels deal with persons who have no compulsion to rock the boat, so to speak, but through unfortunate circumstances – or just laziness – find themselves in situations imposed on them by outside forces, often of a systematic nature, often a result of the work they do. The seemingly mundane is never just that, or is it? In many ways, this uncertainty facilitates reading his stories as fables, or allegories; the reader can’t help but look for a meaning beyond what is described, as what is narrated should be impossible to write good literature about. Still, there is no doubt that the novels are enrapturing, to the point of almost being thrillers.

Mills catches the Englishness of the English language so well that we come to see how everyday phrases might hide a severe and possibly gruesome reality, or vice versa; that everyday actions are given an importance well above their station and right. This is part of why the novels are very funny – the disproportioned seriousness or mundanity of language itself (there just must exist a thesis out there called the mundanity of modernity, or some such…) – and it must indeed be very difficult for a translator to transfer, or transmit, the particular English quality of the dialogue.

One of Mills’ literary tricks is to present his worlds so close to the actual world that we might be fooled into accepting them. However, there is always something not quite right, some rule we are never told about, something that separates his fictional worlds from reality as we “know” it. Of course, this might be suggested of the real world as well, that there is some crucial information about it that we are missing… Anyhow, this unknown factor, the element we can’t quite grasp with our understanding, is exactly what gives his novels their tension, and perhaps even their meaning.

In The Scheme for Full Employment, it is the meaning of the titular scheme that propels our attention, if not the narrative itself: Why are they doing this? But rather than be content to be a kind of working class existentialism, Mills’s description of the basic action makes it so recognizable, that when the results become clear, the reader is torn between existentialist horror and firstclass mirth. (As an aside, I can’t remember ever having laughed so often while reading a novel).

In Mills’ perhaps most clearly allegorical novel, Explorers of the New Century, we are never sure exactly what anyone are actually doing, with what, where and why. Two groups are racing towards the North (Pole?), as a parody of Amundsen and Scott, with the hope of finding there a solution to “the one enduring problem; namely the question of the mules”. The tale itself is of the hardships you would expect of any arctic exploration, except that if the mules are not mules, we can’t really trust whether other words might not also be euphemistic.

I wasn’t all that keen on Explorers of the New Century when I first read it, feeling that Mills’ language repeated itself a bit too much. In hindsight, however, I suspect it might be his best, as the tale is rather more complicated than a first reading would allow for. The book also seems to me to say something worthwhile about the world we do live in; the allegory is so certainly there that the novel definitely moves away from the mundane and takes on real, actual meanings. While also containing the now expected comedic Millsian touches, Explorers… is by far the darkest of his novels and finally attains real tragedy in its resolution.

After this lengthy introduction, I guess it is inevitable that the actual subject of this post will be a bit anticlimactic. While continuing driving his bus route, Mills used about four years to write his latest novel: The Maintenance of Headway. It is a relatively short book, in which Mills again can utilize his first hand knowledge of the milieu he has chosen as his subject matter: Buses. As mentioned, his earlier stint as a fence builder served him well in his debut novel, and likewise his experience as a van driver in The Scheme for Full Employment. This time he writes about the profession evidently closest to his heart, so I suspected a similar existentialist exposé of the bus driving business as he had done in his earlier “profession novels”.

While The Maintenance of Headway certainly is funny at times, and is populated with the typical Mills characters who spout regulatory gibberish on behalf of a system they don’t really understand, in this case I was left cold. Perhaps Mills was too close to the story, but I don’t think this explains my feeling of near indifference to the proceedings. Rather, his customary tropes and turns of phrases finally seemed tired and lacking the newness they once had, as if Mills’ effort this time was a bit half-hearted. Also, I think Mills has educated us much in the absurdity of transportation schemes already, to the point of making this latest novel something of a superfluous entity. And, not least, I think we all already feel – and know – that the system behind buses and the way the inner-city transport sector adheres to time tables and its customers, contains elements of political and economical insanity. We don’t really need Mills to tell us that there are sinister forces behind the market’s demands for effectivity, nor how this will have consequences further down the ladder.

Mills is indeed succinct when he shows us how readily people can step into new roles, here almost equalling a move from victim to tormentor. Finally this is where the novel approaches greatness, but it is too little too late. The novel is mildly entertaining, and the final, while advertised, comes off as satisfying. I can’t, though, recommend it wholeheartedly. Maybe if you have never read a Mills book before, The Maintenance of Headway will seem new and revealing of the absurdity of our daily working lives.

I enjoyed the book, by all means, but not unreservedly and not without a tint of disappointment. Magnus Mills is capable of more and better. Perhaps, after all, a break from his everyday job, if only for half a year, would serve him well. At least he would be able to use his imagination rather than draw upon immediate experience (the two, though, are not mutually exclusive, by no means…). Of course, then he runs the risk of losing some of the realism of his “realsurdist”(TM) working class fiction. By now, however, just that realism seems to stand in the way of Mills’ expanding his literary universe, even being so familiar to him that he is showing signs of losing the spark that was so present in his earlier novels.

Summer Reading Part 4

August 27, 2010

It is true that in order to expand one’s literary horizon, one must dare to chance the unknown; if not, one would never find new authors. Sadly, more often than not, those choices turn out to be a waste of time and effort. This summer I finished Dan Simmons’ latest novel, Drood. Luckily it didn’t take much effort, just a lot of wasted time.

Normally, I try to read some reviews about what, for me, is an unknown writer before I take the plunge. In Simmon’s case, though, I stood at an airport and realized I had miscalculated the number of books I’d brought with me on the journey, so I bought this one blindly. Well, almost. I knew vaguely that he had written some horror and science fiction, and is regarded as among the better contemporary practitioners of the genre(s). I’d also read a review of his penultimate novel, The Terror, and it had seemed intriguing, except that some complained that it didn’t have to be almost a thousand pages long. At least Drood is only about 800 pages.

(An aside: The director Guillermo del Toro is quoted in the cover blurb: “A dazzling journey through a crooked gaslit labyrinth”. I realized later that I can well believe that he wants the book to sell, seeing as he is slated to direct it it, so it really is the “recommendation” of someone who has invested financially in the book. Not that I am swayed one way or the other by what is stated on the cover, which I’ve heard you shouldn’t judge a book by anyway, I just felt this seemed particularly dishonest).

Drood is a historical novel, in this case meaning that the protagonists are real historical figures. This genre is very difficult to do convincingly, as putting words in existing characters is fraught with difficulties pure fiction avoids. I suspect the reason is almost similar to our perception of CGI in films.

As long as the film makers try to portray some otherworldly monster, say, we can usually accept what we see, because we know it is not real and it is not meant to be; it’s imagination put to the screen and does not try to represent any objective reality. It is there for that film and has no life without, or external to, the frame. As soon as they try to computer generate people, we usually notice there is something wrong there, something is not right with the movements or the eyes or the way gravity works upon the hair.

In the case of using historical characters in novels, to get the speech and thoughts right is equally difficult as in the case of realistically representing CGI characters. Of course, when fictional characters’ speech and thoughts are put to paper by an author, we come to accept these as more or less realistic, but, consciously or not, we know these are imaginings and never completely real. That is part of the contract between author and reader: we are there to be told a story by someone and if the book is artistically successful, we agree to accept that story as true within the book. As soon as we know that the characters are actual persons, once living, once having done and thought and said actual things, our critical faculties come into play in a distinctive manner.

I hope you’ll excuse this sojourn into a territory on the edge of immediate relevance to the matter at hand.

Drood is a fictional account of the relationship between the writers Charles Dickens, who needs no further introduction, and Wilkie Collins, peripherally famous for having written perhaps the first proper detective novel. His The Woman in White and The Moonstone are still being read and often reprinted. Having read no biographies of neither author, I can’t comment on the veracity of Simmons’ treatment of the characters. While the novel is pure speculation in the vulgar meaning of the word, it is also filled with tons of biographical information about the protagonists. We learn which guests attended which birthday party, who was at Dickens’ home which Christmas, the dates of a number of publications and theatre plays; who attended the premiere, how many times were the plays rewritten, who played the leads, and so on and so on. While this may have its place in a biography, in a historical novel it rather bogs down the tempo and adds to the already impressive page count. So often I couldn’t help but think that the information given had no bearing whatsoever upon the plot of the novel; but just served to give Simmons a chance to show us how much research he had done into the time and the characters.

Writing a book like this, I would think it sensible to read all one could about the subject matter: history, biography, architectural plans, for that matter. At a point, however, one must put the material down and keep it in one’s head merely as background aid for the novel one is going to write. In Drood, nothing is too insignificant to get a mention. If only there had been a story worth telling beyond all these details…

“I went to stay at my mother’s home near Tunbridge Wells for most of December of 1866. I decided to remain there with her until I celebrated my forty-third birthday on 8 January. (…) At the time of my extended visit with her beginning in December of 1866, Mother had realized her long ambition of moving to the countryside and was dividing her time among various cottages she leased in Kent: her Bentham Hill Cottage near Tunbridge Wells, Elm Lodge in the town itself, and her most recent cottage at Prospect Hill, Southborough.”

This was just an example from me accidentally opening the book on page 354. Needless to say, the various cottages mentioned has no bearing on the story itself, and pretty much all of this kind of information is repeated countless times, as if the editor has given up all pretence to be actually working. Here it is even repeated on the same page; December 1866. Apart from this, one can’t exactly claim that the prose is singing. In fact, I couldn’t with any conscience even use the word mediocre.

It is not always this bad, though. There are passages that are almost passable and, with a little goodwill, almost serves its purpose. At the times in which the action threatens to become a bit exciting, though, one can always trust Simmons to introduce a horrid resolution or follow it up with more incessant name and detail dropping. His worst narrative tic is to actually bring the action forward only for us to, after some ten pages or more, be introduced to that good old amateurish resort: “it was all just a dream“. I didn’t think that this could happen in a book written by a grown up. Now, if these dreams would bring something new to the table, give us some insight into the character, something we had not already learnt again and again, of course dreams could have their place, albeit never in the way in which Simmons present them.

Wilkie Collins is the one supposedly writing us this story. He is intensely jealous of Charles Dickens’ success with the public. Everyone loves the elderly author, from the Queen of England to the lowliest homeless wrecks. We are introduced to a mysterious character named Drood: an Egyptian criminal overlord of the poorer masses in England… No, never mind. I was going to sum up the plot, but just can’t be bothered, it is too silly and amateurishly presented. I don’t even know if we are meant to believe that it is happening, even within the novel’s universe. Absolutely nothing that happens has any significance, neither for the characters nor for the reader.

I have to admit on cheating a bit when I mention Drood as part of my summer reading. I actually began the book half a year before, but found the book, after 400 pages, to be going nowhere and quite bad all over. The language itself was, as I said, almost passable, even though the characters used words sounding quite American to my untrained ears. As the summer came, though, I began to regret having wasted quite some time getting through these 400 pages, so I decided to finish the novel, in the hope that maybe some meaning would present itself, some real motives might come into play. A proper end can do miracles for a mediocre book.

Needless to say, Drood gives us nothing near a proper end. Numerous plot threads are left dangling and the novel’s plot, or what there is of it, turns out to be even more nonsensical than I feared. A kind interpretation would be that the entire novel, all 800 pages of it, has been the morphine induced ramblings of a hopeless drug abuser. Wilkie Collins, that is, not the actual author. I use the word, perhaps, kindly.

Let me end somewhat more positively with a brief mention of another historical novel much more worthwhile: Harry Thompson’s This Thing of Darkness. (In the US, I think it is called To the Edge of the World, a bit too generic a title for my tastes) This also concerns the relationship between two historical figures, but unlike in Simmons’ treatment of them, with Thompson they are in surer hands.

Robert Fitzroy is the captain of the HMS Beagle, setting out to explore Tierra del Fuego on the Southernmost tip of South America, and connected areas. On board his ship is a young passenger by the name of Charles Darwin. The two men strike up a friendship, but various differences in world view puts them eventually at odds. The story is interesting and well told. The discussions about the kernel of evolutionary theory are well done and seldom comes off as after the fact, which is an easy trap in this kind of literature. It is a good adventure novel and you learn something at the same time. Robert Fitzroy, for example, is the father of weather forecasting as we know it today.  I liked it quite much. And my edition is not even 750 pages.

Summer Reading Part 3: Knut Hamsun

August 24, 2010

I’ve read surprisingly few books by the Norwegian Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun. Being Norwegian myself, this is close to heresy. I can’t offer a good excuse or explanation, especially given my almost unconditional liking of those of his books I have actually read. I began last year to remedy this situation by reading his early novel Mysteries, and continued this summer with a late work. I plan to read at least one Hamsun-book a year, so that should keep me going some 20 years more… (I have the same project going with Faulkner… and I should read more books by John Steinbeck, Jack London, Phillip K. Dick, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad … Oh time, time, We hardly even knew you! My bad conscience is imprisoned in my book shelves. There it holds court).

Landstrykere, in English known as Vagabonds or Wayfarers, was written in 1927, 10 years after his perhaps best work, Growth of the Soil, which was the novel that probably secured him the aforementioned Nobel Prize. At this point in time, we are approaching the end of his rich authorship. Wayfarers is the first volume of a trilogy about the “lovable scoundrel”-type August. After the trilogy had ended, he wrote only one more novel before his “recollections” Paa Gjengrodde Stier in 1949 marked his very last words, at the age of 90.

At this point in his career, Hamsun had found a voice far removed from the talkative nervousness and longer passages of stream of consciousness found in, say, Hunger and Mysteries. These later novels are also distinctly anti-modernist in theme, so perhaps the stream of consciousness, so indicative of the modernist style, would be unsuitable for and even downright hostile to Hamsun’s treatment of the subject matter.

His voice in Wayfarers, the authorial voice, is that of the old sage; someone who sees through the human follies of his characters and condemns these or accepts them grudgingly. Still, there is love there for a particular type, one with a head upon his shoulders which might be full of foolishness, but dares think outside the box, as the Americans like to say with their excessive love of sports analogies. Hamsun’s genius is that while Hamsun the person wants to warn against the dangers of modernity and a mindless celebration of newness and fads, Hamsun the author balances what could have been merely harsh judgments on his characters with a genuine love for their whims and fallacies. His characters come truly alive under his pen, to use a trite image, and we recognize so much in them that we follow their reasons for making stupid choices as well as forgive them their bad fortune, no matter how much it is of their own doing.

We meet the protagonist, Edevart, at a young age and follows his adventures and life until middle age, through love affairs and attempts to make a life for himself. His is a life spent on the move. Since an early age, as he befriends the bigger than life character August, he is a restless soul looking for some permanence, but comes to realize that he is a vagabond at heart.

August, the gold toothed orphaned boy with illusions of grandeur, comes to dominate not only Edevart’s life, but the novel as well, almost stealing the story and the novel from him. While August is portrayed as a genius with a penchant for -and habit of – utter stupidity, Edevart is more of an everyman, and thus lacks the vibrancy to dominate a novel like this. Edevart has to compete with Hamsun’s wonderful descriptive powers, be it of the landscape or of the physical appearance or psychological exactness with which the author portrays the other characters.

Of course, Hamsun knew how to tell a story, even though he was never the best of plotters. Here, too, is an author who lets himself be carried away by the whims of his characters and starts down narrative alleys he doesn’t always manage to come out of completely unscathed. However, a book about wanderers must dare to wander.
And as I hinted, in this almost instinctive way of telling a story lies some of Hamsun’s particular quality. While he – and the book – wants to tell of the folly of disregarding the earth and the possibilities of the land and the soil, of how the good life can only be lived by close contact with nature, by patience and endurance, the story moves away from any one will and reaches a plurality of world views that sounds more true than any dogma. The story refuses to let itself be reduced to any singular vision and in effect comes to embrace the good and the bad, the foolish and the clever, letting us see a whole world there, in these simple people from a dirt poor village to the north of Norway, in a land that in this novel is itself and the world.

There is no one who writes quite like Hamsun, though many have tried to. Hemingway famously claimed that Hamsun had taught him to write, and Herman Hesse, Isaac B. Singer and Thomas Mann were all highly indebted to him. For me it is fascinating to see how he almost reinvented the Norwegian language, using words, spellings and phrases that seem more true than the dictionary.

Especially in his later novels, Hamsun is also very humoristic. The humour is more often than not based upon human folly – and human inventions and social institutions (say, capitalism). Apart from the humour, his descriptive powers were considerable. I have spent quite some time in a similar environment as these novels. Hamsun’s language helps me see clearly and anew the nature and language of this part of the world. The modern psychological novel would not be the same without Hamsun, but apart from the psychology, there is a way of looking at the world in these novels that, while not unproblematic, is still presented and portrayed in a manner without compare.

I’d venture to say that Hamsun is quite singular in Norwegian literary history. A few good novelists turned up after his time; Tarjei Vesaas, Sigurd Hoel, and Kjell Askildsen (short stories), but none has approached Hamsun’s genius. Of writers before him, I can only think of Ibsen and perhaps Bjørnson, who I’m not that acquainted with. (I’d like to say Snorre, but he was Icelandic…) Hamsun seems one of these flukes, a personality and creator capable of things that by all rights should be beyond him, were it not for some miraculous historical convergence of talent and will, for good and for bad.

Summer Reading Part 2: Kawabata Yasunari’s Snow Country.

August 22, 2010

I normally don’t read two books of the same author in a row, so in order to get all the Murakami books out of the way, I had to intersperse them with something else. The first one was by another Japanese writer.
Yasunari Kawabata – or Kawabata Yasunari, if you want to stick to the Japanese way of presenting names – was the first Japanese to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1968. Whereas Murakami is a Japanese writer very much influenced by the west, and particularly USA, Kawabata’s style and subject matters are Japanese through and through. (At least as far as I can see. I am by no means an expert in Japanese literature, and can base my impression only on a few works). I think Murakami’s western sensibilities, to put it perhaps euphemistically, goes a long way to explain his quite singular success in translated form. Apart from a certain inherent Japanese quirkiness, he often reminds me quite a bit of Paul Auster when Auster still seemed interesting.

Kawabata, on the other hand, is no easy sell abroad, I suspect. At least not these days. While his style can at times have a certain exotic attraction by its very Japaneseness, the at times strong modernist traits won’t ingratiate him with the casual reader. Of course, this is by no means a goal in itself. The only thing Kawabata has in common with Murakami (apart from both being Japanese authors), is that neither of them seem to find the endings particularly important. Snow Country was begun in 1934 and finished in 1947, after having been published piecemeal in various instalments. The ending almost being an afterthought as he revisited the book after several years…
Snow Country is by many considered his finest book, and it opens fantastically:
“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.”
Note the rhythm here and the haiku-like sparseness of the prose, like some oriental Hemingway. I had to read these lines several times, allowing myself to bask in their perfection. The Haiku is perhaps influential in Kawabata’s way of using very short scenes to stand in for a much larger story; we are never given more than fleeting glimpses into the actual actions and lives of the characters. The opening description of watching a woman’s translucent face halfmirrored in the window of the train during its nightly ascent to the Snow Country, is among the sublime  passages of the book. Here Kawabata suggests not only the protagonist’s way of looking at his world and at life, but  even sums up the novel for us, almost telling us how we should expect to read it.

The plot of the novel is seemingly straightforward, albeit not told straightforwardly. The young well off protagonist of the piece, is a dilettante with enough money not to have to worry about sordid matters such as actual work. As a consequence, he is busying himself by writing a monograph about the occidental ballet, an art form he has never actually seen. He is married, but returns to the hot springs of the Snow Country to meet again a young geisha who has fascinated him. Another girl there also draws his attention. A sense of resignation infuses their conversations and interaction. There is a love affair.

I am pretty sure that Snow Country is a very good book. It might even be a masterpiece. However, there were so many elements I didn’t understand, and I came to believe that I had no means to understand them. I didn’t have any problems with the modernist style of going back and forth in time, without clear indications of how much time passes or who is speaking at any given time. Thus spake Faulkner. Neither did I find the language particularly complicated, and I am convinced that the translation by Edward G. Seidensticker is impeccable. So, I concluded that the reason for reason evading me must be at least in part cultural.  Or I might be a bit more on the stupid side than I hitherto feared.

The translator adds some valuable foot notes trying to explain the more esoteric aspects, for example which cloth is typically used for which kimonos, and what would be the kimono’s purpose and significance in a given situation. However, it seems also the colour of the kimonos, to continue this example, would be pregnant with meaning in a given exchange, signifying not only social status but also symbolic relations. Whether a person is standing to the left or the right of the oldest person in a room could be extremely important for all I know, but – I just don’t know. The translator himself notes in his foreword that he doesn’t know of any other novel in which a slight change in tone signifies so much. Thus, no matter how good a job the translator does, it is pretty impossible to catch all or even most of the nuances of the novel. As a result, I never felt that I managed to inhabit Snow Country in the way the book probably deserves. There are beautiful phrases here, conversations rendered clear and cold as ice. There are psychological insights in the novel that even I could appreciate, told in a spare, distant style, with any melancholy left to the reader, not in the text itself. This will have to be enough for me, and perhaps revisiting the novel in thirty years’ time, I will have learnt more of the culture and know enough of Japanese literature to appreciate Snow Country properly.

By the way. While the foreword is a valuable tool in order to understand what is going on and why, try not to read it before you have been through the book at least once. Seidensticker chooses for some reason to retell the entire plot, including the very last line, even giving his interpretation of the books climactic moment(s).

And by the way again: I just love the painting on the cover of my edition of Snow Country: Ando Hiroshige, or rather, Hiroshige Utagawa’s Night Snow at Kambara (from his 53 Tokaido Stages/Stations) (It’s the first picture at the top of this post). I know of no other painter who portrays snow nearer to my ideal of snow, as if his pictures are communicating to a half forgotten childhood, and there is a faint answer there. I get a warm, excited feeling every time I see one of his snow scenes. (That sounded wrong, didn’t it?) I have a nice framed print of Hiroshige’s Man Crossing a Bridge in the Snowy Landscape, from his 100 (Famous) Views Of Edo. It was begun the year he withdrew from the world to become a Buddhist Monk and would be very fitting of this novel as well. I would decorate our entire apartment with his pictures if it was up to me…

In closing this part, I recommend the book to anyone seriously or half-seriously interested in literature, and it can’t hurt if you also have some interest in Japanese culture. I liked Snow Country a lot, I just didn’t love it. For this, I suspect, I can only blame myself.

Summer Reading Part 1: Haruki Murakami

August 21, 2010

Well, summer seems to have departed this part of the world and it is doubtful we’ll see it again this year. The rain is falling heavily and decidedly outside the windows (and a good thing it is, too, that it is staying outside…) and it is good bye to summer evenings and leisurely revelry in its pleasures, scarce as they might be. It is time, then, to take stock, in short, and in a round about way, to look back on what my summer reading consisted of this year. I’ll need a couple of posts to finish this…

There are not many surprises for those who have read earlier list of my vacation literature. And mind, vacation doesn’t mean anything more than the fact that I have more time than normally to read. It’s not like I choose books that I think will be particularly suited for the season.

I admit to being on a bit of a Haruki Murakami-kick since I read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle last summer. In June and July I finished five books of the author, but none of them was quite as good as my first experience with Murakami. They all share, to some degree, the weaknesses of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, but not all have its strengths. The foremost weakness with all the Murakami books I have read is that it is so clear that this is not an author who spends a lot of time plotting his books. Rather, he writes, I suspect, quite fast and lets his imagination have free reign, allowing each new idea a place in his books, even though they would have been better served on the cutting room floor, so to speak. When he – and the reader – reaches the end, few things are wrapped up and the dénouement seems vague and not really very meaningful, at times trite.

What makes the books worthwhile – and almost always very enjoyable – is paradoxically also connected to these short comings. Murakami has imagination and he has the words and control of language to make his ideas attractive and even seem more interesting than in hindsight they really are, I think. As a consequence, his books are extremely readable and easy to follow, even though they take detours into the whimsical and borderline surrealist at times. Murakami is probably at his weakest when it comes to real feelings and he isn’t always able to make us take the situations seriously enough to vest any emotional interest in them. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing, but neither does Murakami strike my as a deep thinker, rather, his ideas are cutesy and just irreverent enough to draw in the arty crowd, which always revels in terms like surrealism and seldom look behind surfaces.

Still, I have read five books of the man this summer, and I expect to read his remaining oeuvre in the year to come, so there must be something that draws me back. As mentioned, the books are extremely readable and they are almost very good as well. I think part of the attraction is the hope that maybe this time he will make it; he will be able to finish the book in a coherent way, the disparate parts will turn out to fit after all, there will finally be proof of a plan somewhere.

Of the five I read, the two books that came closest to being successes were Kafka on the Shore and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Especially the latter, in which there were actually two stories mutually illuminating each other. This, at least, led me to think there was some authorial purpose and plan behind the book. Kafka on the Shore is long and for the most part a satisfying reading experience, were it not for Murakami’s habit of forgetting or losing interest in his own plot lines and characters. There is a schizophrenia sub-plot in the book, for example, that never really goes anywhere, even though the novel starts with introducing it. It’s as if the author is hoping he’ll manage to come back to this in a meaningful way, but for the most part he forgets about it and finally it seems he just can’t be bothered with it at all.

The documentary book Underground; The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, is of course different than his novels in that Murakami’s usual flights of fancy can’t be expected. The subtitle pretty much says what the book is about, and Murakami presents the case quite clearly, and for the most part doesn’t intrude too much in the stories of the interviewees. In the last part, when he talks with the members of the Aum cult responsible for the metro gas attack, he for some reason finds it necessary to serve as the sensible voice of an enlightened public, debating with the cult members and presenting his own views in a more inquisitorial manner. Perhaps this was a mistake.

What I Talk About When I talk About Running steals the title, of course, from Raymond Carver, but little else. I was irritated by this. Apart from capitalizing upon a known and damn good title, what Murakami writes about in the book has absolutely nothing to do with Carver’s short stories, neither in style nor subject matter, and as a result it would be like if, say, Eminem released a record called Dark Side of the Loon, which, upon reflection, is not that bad a title. Not that I compare Carver to Pink Floyd… Anyhow, just because Murakami has translated Carver to Japanese, doesn’t give him the right to Bogart the connotations to Carver’s tightly constructed and very precise short stories in his own literary output.

Murakami’s book itself is no great shakes. The type of book which would probably never be released unless you already have a name. It is a collection of essays already published in slightly changed forms in different magazines, and put together in this book as a kind of runners diary and attempt at autobiography. Like most of Murakami’s books, it is enjoyable, but this one was forgotten as soon as I finished the last page. It’s an easy read, though, perfect for having in your pocket to be read while waiting on the bus or any occasion where the alternative is to stand up and down glaring into nothingness. It’s the equivalent of an extremely light lager, something to sip while staring lazily at the sea.

South of the Border, West of the Sun is among Murakami’s shortest books. It is also seemingly a very simple, almost intimate story. Therefore I had reason to believe that the author would be able to have sufficient control of his characters and their situations to give us a satisfying ending. (Note: I don’t mean a happy or sad ending, not even a logical ending, just something to make the reader think that it is important that he pays attention). Nope. Again, the ending is so vague that it is irritating. I don’t even need resolutions to the plot, I‘ll accept that human experience is too complicated and that resolutions can be artificial. Just give me a sign that the author has paid attention to the narrative possibilities and threads he has put out there!
The book is rather erotic and as always it is well written. But the eroticism doesn’t seem to suggest anything more than itself and the fine prose is left hanging with nowhere to go.

Still, I don’t mean to sound too negative. There is much to like about Murakami, it’s just so frustrating that he never seems able to quite deliver that last genius phrase or resolution or meaning or whatever the hell you want to call it. He is like a Maradona with no goal scoring abilities, and should he score, it is almost certainly with the hand of God, never a result of an honest well executed play. This is the joy and frustration of reading Haruki Murakami.

After Summer: Reading and Laziness

October 7, 2009

Yes, I have been lax. Summer has gone and autumn done come without this journal having seen any considerable advance. With HBO’s competent miniseries about John Adams still relatively fresh in my mind, I’m tempted to quote Benjamin Franklin’s bon mot that “a life of leisure and a life of laziness are two different things“. I’m afraid that in the matter of keeping up this blog I’ve erred on the side of the latter. All is not lost, though, as I have put my energies, such as they are, to pursuits perhaps equally worthy during this time, the results of which I’ll hopefully see come December or thereabouts. Let that be sufficiently vague. (No, it is not an offspring!)

But enough self-recrimination! Laziness is not what it is if a purpose can be glimpsed. To that end, let’s bring on another quotation that better illuminates how I prefer to view these past hazy days of summer: “Never be entirely idle; but either be reading, or writing, or praying or meditating or endeavouring something for the public good“. Thus, validated by one of my favourite monks, Thomas à Kempis, I can rest assured (bit of a pun there!) that I have not, indeed, been entirely idle.

kempis04One thing I HAVE done during these months is reading. – And writing, supplemented by the occasional meditative moment (which I like to describe as staring emptily into the wall while waiting for a sentence not completely crap to fall down from a place not unlike heaven. If there is prayer involved, it is silent and hidden). As for the public good, well I have voted and not murdered anyone while visiting the local cinema, no mean feat, that. So there, Kempis.

(Kempis is thought to have written the mystic devotional work The Imitation of Christ, in which we learn that “at the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done“, a phrase which rather takes the sheen off his former statement about the merits of reading. Kempis, though, was himself an avid reader, to put it mildly, and a writer, praying and meditating and so on, so I suspect that in both cases he talks more about himself and any general validity, then, is merely hoped for. Much like any religion, organized or not.)

All this hullabaloo, and the only purpose of this post is: These are the books I brought with me and read during the summer:

Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping. I can’t think of many – if any – novelists alive today with Robinson’s command of language, her eye for the perfect sentences. This was her first novel, released in 1980. I had only read her second novel, the wonderful Gilead, from 2004, which deservedly won a Pulitzer. It seems that she has now picked up speed, for her “sequel” to Gilead, Home, was published last year. I plan to read soonish her book of essays, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998), which, I’m sure, will be a hoot and a half. A rash and probably inexact description of Robinson would be to place her somewhere between Flannery O’ Connor and Harper Lee, both thematically and stylistically. However, that would be lazy, so let’s not do that, shall we?

Knut Hamsun: Mysterier (Mysteries). This was the second (real) novel of Norway’s best author, released two years after the more famous Sult (Hunger). For some reason I had not read it before, and I planned to really like it. It is, of course, well written in the inimitable Hamsun-style, and there are psychological insights in the book that are surprising of its time. And it is actually very entertaining. However, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I would have liked the book better had I read it at a younger age. I found it hard to share the novel’s concerns other than in a very vicarious way, which perhaps is true of all books, though I think not. These days I find that I much prefer Markens Grøde (Growth of the Soil). Even though it is by far a perfect novel, it has a power and a will (dangerous words to use while talking about Hamsun…) and a direction; a goal, something the author seems to need to be saying. It also has plot holes the size of a Frenchman’s ego and severe narrative problems, but these matter less than the mere existence of the work itself. Growth of the Soil insists upon its place in the world much like its protagonist. I haven’t read Hunger in quite a few years, but while reading Mysteries, it struck me that perhaps that book as well will be best appreciated by being read at a younger age than mine. (I liked it a lot when I was 20 or so). Still, these are quibbles, as all the Hamsun books mentioned here are masterpieces of a sort.

nagasakiKazuo Ishiguro: A Pale View of the Hills. I really, really liked this first novel. Having formerly only read An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro’s second book (which this novel closest resembles) and When We Were Orphans, I had great hopes for this and was not disappointed. Ishiguro, while having a Japanese name,and having lived in Japan till the age of five, is very much an Englishman, and the Japan he observes in his first two novels is very much a mediated Japan. One gets the feeling that he has studied the films of Yasujiro Ozu with the interest of someone a generation removed from the society and geography that these films represent. As he has added his own literary sensibility to this second hand understanding of Japan, he is able to describe both the society and the results of that society in a way that he maybe could not have accomplished had he lived there himself his entire life. The English reserve and traditional virtues (as seen in Remains of the Day) actually go very well together with the Japan of Ozu.

18651996While these reflections may seem boring, in A pale View of the Hills, they are definitely not. There is an extreme tension in the telling, everything so seemingly mundane and matter of fact, that one comes to suspect that Ishiguro’s narrator is perhaps not all trustworthy. Every little event is thus filled with a kind of dread, as if the masks, not only of the society, but the one worn by the narrator herself, might slip at any moment and the result will not be comforting. As the action takes place in Ishiguro’s birth town of Nagasaki, where the atom bomb had been dropped not that long ago, there is a curious mix of traditional Japanes idyllic scenes and an almost post-acopalyptic landscape. This underlines the tension between tradition and the foreign; the new; the rootless so to say. These are people living in an environment where they have learned that everything might disappear in seconds; what does this mean for the traditionally so stoic Japanese mindset? Rather than say more, I urge everyone to read this small wonderful book.

Haruki Murakami: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. While Ishiguro is an English writer looking to Japan for inspiration – and possibly his “roots” – Murakami is certainly Japanese and looking to the west and particularly to USA. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was originally a serialised novel, meaning that the author wrote it without having the luxury to go back and change things. This one can certainly see, as there are innumerable plot threads that are never picked up. Lots of scenes seem to be without consequence to the story and this even after the book has been through a kind of editing by the translator, Jay Rubin. Still, it is maybe the most enjoyable book I’ve read this year, and one of the few instances that I’ve not wanted a book to end (This almost never happens. I want most books to end as soon as possible, even the good ones.) as I was having a helluva time with it. In Rubin’s translation, at least, Murakami’s language sounds very polished and elegantly post modern. In fact, I found myself thinking that this is the book that Paul Auster would have written if he’d had any interesting ideas the last 20 years. After having finished it I went straight out and bought 3 more books by Murakami, an author I would have read long ago if I hadn’t been so sceptical to literary fashions and of seeing his books everywhere these last years:

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. A collection of short stories, none of which I seem to be able to recall a mere two months after having read them. I remember I enjoying some of them, but frankly, while they perhaps were my cup of tea, I had screwed up the order and gotten a rather bland bag. The fault is possibly mine, as one should not read a short story collection in just two days.

Norwegian Wood. Murakami himself didn’t want this novel translated, even though it was a sensation in Japan. But as the Norwegian publishers desperately wanted the book released (because of the title), the American publishers produced an English version for the purpose. The novel is not more than passable, but never dull.

Michael Chabon: The Yiddisch Policemen’s Union. I read this immediately after having read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and possibly that explains the near fury I felt upon reading the first chapters of this. Murakami at his best is indeed a hard act to follow. I’ve liked many of Chabon’s novels, but this one is almost irredeemable. I really can’t explain how something like this can be published. (Actually the publishers almost forced Chabon to publish the book before he felt that it was ready…) The language of the book is amateurish and irritating, the plot never rising above the clichéd nature of the popular fiction it tries to emulate. “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot”, as Salvador Dali said. There are rumours that the Coen-brothers will make this parody of Noir into a film. I can actually see how The Yiddisch Policemen’s Union can work better as a film than as a novel, but I have my doubts that any medium can save this mess. At least without some serious rewriting.

After some 100 pages I did begin to warm up to the concoction, but not enough by a long shot to forgive its considerable shortcomings. Whereas Murakami’s imagination and elegance of writing made me overlook the holes in his plot, Chabon is just too much of a journeyman to pull the novel off as an anecdotal trifle. He tries to translate Raymond Chandler to a Jewish Alaska (!), and frankly he is no Chandler, not even an Alistair Maclean. In this novel I find that he is not even himself.   I could – and perhaps should – back up this critique with examples from the text and try to formulate just what I disliked so much, but frankly I can’t be bothered. Life’s too short. I do hope, though, that Chabon will be able to redeem himself, as I know that in his best moments he writes popular prose of a high order.

Richard Ellmann: Yeats; The Man and the Masks. This biography of Yeats was originally written in 1948, a mere ten years after the author’s death. It is considered something of a key text in the understanding of Yeats’ life and literary universe. Ellmann later wrote a highly regarded biography of Joyce, which I’ve not read, but the view he presents of Yeats here doesn’t alltogether convince me. While he covers Yeats the Mystic and makes a case for a perpetually insecure man with no fixed identity, I never felt I got to know Yeats The Man, which, after all, is what one comes to a biography for. Perhaps more inexcusable, I didn’t get to know Yeats The Poet. Almost all of Ellmann’s readings seem determined by how he has chosen to perceive Yeats and allows little leeway or room for what I would call the poet’s genius. (I generelly avoid this word like the plague, but will make an exception in Yeats’ case) That is to say, how he managed to write so many good poems that seem timeless and almost universal even though Yeats himself was very much a man of his times and interests (mysticism).

The book, as it was written with important contributions by Yeats’ widow, never seems to dare to be impolite or, well, daring, and the biographical elements as a result end up less interesting than I suspect they could be. I don’t expect or want sensationalism, but this biography seemed almost reductionist. As for the poems, for example the famous but widely misunderstood The Second Coming, Ellmann seems only interested in the gyre of the poem’ first line, as this term is discussed in Yeats’ A Vision and thus is a key term in Yeats’ mysticism. As for what the poem itself might mean, or why it is a great poem, Ellmann has little to nothing to declare. This is a solid biography, but an artist of Yeats’ stature deserves more than solid.