Other blogs

jeudi 30 octobre 2008

The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant

The setting is London, 1970's.  The background is a series of dreary flats off the Marylebone Road. Berta and Ervin Kovacs  and their daughter live in possibly the drabbest of the lot. If I were to chose an image by which to hold on to this story, it would be that of doors being slammed shut. Early on in the book,  Vivien who calls herself Miranda in the central part of the novel, observes her father slam the door on a  man unknown to her, a person of glamorous appearance,  accompanied by a  woman of color wearing a leopard coat who is  equally expensively  shod and dressed.  They have come to call on Mr. and Mrs. Kovacs and their daughter.  The man is Vivien's father's brother who has a history of crime and prison behind him, the woman is his companion. Both brothers are hungarian refugees; the respectable and rather dreary parents left in 1938, Sandor left in 1956 after having suffered the nightmare of the war, the anti-semitism, the russian occupation, horrendous tortures.

The slamming of the door gets rid of the brother but it does not get rid of the past even though every effort has been made by Vivian's parents to close all possible doors which the child, the young girl and later the adult daughter, had tried to open. The doors had ben slammed shut.

And yet the book is about that past.  It is also about Vivien's relentless quest to open the doors once and for all and to understand why they had been shut.  Her curiosity not heeded. There is also a moral dimension to the story. Sandor, the  brother whose criminal history is being investigated by the rather righteous young woman, challenges her assumption of good and evil as too easy, too trivial to take in the complexities of a human life which offers, in fact, rather fewer choices than those for which she had made allowances in her still juvenile and innocent judgments.

I find that the title does not reflect the message; yes, clothes define the woman's  as she wishes to be seen; the man also dresses to reflect his sense of self, but surly the book offers much more in the way of subtleties than this would suggest.

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

The headline of the Roth book review in the International Herald Tribune was: "toward the exit, but not there yet."

It's not a bad summary of the latest Philip Roth which tells the story of Zuckermann who, after eleven years as recluse in the Berkshires, after prostate cancer and a resulting permanent state of incontinence and impotence, takes a journey back to Manhattan for minor surgery to try to improve his state only to find that, once more, he is trapped; by once more falling passionately and hopelessly in love with a relatively banal young married woman of great beauty with plenty of money to whom he had already been attracted many, many years go. This second encounter takes place on the eve of the latest Bush election while Jamie suffers her candidate’s defeat, Zuckerman is seduced – in pure phantasy, by a love affair with her and a return to his own youth and virility.

Parallel with is own saga, is the story of Nathan's once-upon-a-time mentor and hero, long dead, the great writer E.I. Lonoff whose ghost haunts Zuckerman and excites a young and ambitious would-be biographer who is hoping to make his own fame by digging up enough witnesses to attest to an incestuous relationship between the author and that man’s half sister.

The first Zuckerman novel, written in 1979, The Ghost Writer, was the portait of the young artist as Jew and as American. Now Zuckerman is trying to save the dead artist's integrity as a man of creative imagination and not as subject for potential money making by an unscrupulous young would-be biographer.

I am making it simpler than it is. There are various plots and various styles. Some sections reads like theatre. There is a he and a she part. Some is a long analysis of Lonoff's personality written by the woman who came to live with him when his wife left him. Much is the agony of Zuckerman's physical state, the misery of his incontinence, the horror of his impotence, the loss of his virility. His slow dying.

The book is not easy. Both Roth and Zuckerman are troubled about literature and its holiness. Does a critic have the right to confuse the hero of the book with the author? Or is the author free to create a new being and the critic must allow that freedom to the writer without interpretation relating the work to the writer? Roth never has easy answers.

Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee

"At heart he is not a novelist after all, they say, but a pedant who dabbles in fiction. And I have reached a stage in my life when I begin to wonder whether they are not right."

The above is from the book, a reflection made by Coetzee about his hero, a man called JC.

They are not right. This is the voice of an experienced and wise novelist who knows exactly what he is doing and does it brilliantly.

JC is a seventy-two year old man, living in Australia, contributing chapters to a commissioned book of essays called Strong Opinions. Essentially all the opinions expressed deal with power, the meaning of power and of its immoral uses in our world; the meaning of an ethical life. The form of the book is curious and innovative since it allows the author to speak in three voices simultaneously: the upper third of the page is in the voice of the author, the second third speaks with the voice of a young woman whom JC met in the laundry room of his building and whom he persuaded to act as his secretary while trying to finish the book. The third section is given over to a conversation between Anya the woman and her suspicious boyfriend, Alan, a believer in market values as the only criteria worth applying to life's questions. This arrangement allows our author to raise other questions than the ones that are of personal concern to him.

There is so much to say about this book. My first response to Coetzee is that here, again (after reading the last Roth novel) we have the story of an ageing novelist who is aware of his impotence and who insists on confronting not only his own lack of virility but also testing himself through a relationship which appears to threaten the potent lover of that same woman. This was, similarly, the central theme of Roth’s book I reviewed here last week.

Coetzee, the white man from South Africa, homeless, choosing to live in Australia away from his known world; Roth the Jew from New Jersey living in Protestant New England on a mountain top: two old men consumed by anger and regret for the privileges of youth.

There the comparison ends. In Coetzee’s book every page is important. Every page has at least one sentence, one paragraph, one thought, needing your full attention. His observations on power, on the politics of apartheid, “all of this was done in the name of a struggle against terror. I used to think that the people who created these laws that effectively suspended the rule of law were moral barbarians. Now I know that they were just pioneers, ahead of their time.”; on literature, on the meaning of language, on the origins of the state…I can go on; I would like to quote at least twenty passages, but I know that you just want the flavor of the book so as to decide if you want to read it. Well, this is a great book. This will become a classic. This is a book you will want to re-read, to own and to give to other thoughtful readers.

The Worst Thing I've Done by Ursula Hegi

Annie, Mason and Jake live in a complicated web of relationships part erotic, part platonic, always in flux, always filled with excitement, passion, desire, envy and rage.

Annie is a collage artist who expresses, in her art, all the layers of feeling that have invaded the lives of these three human beings. Ursula Hegi has used as her literary device a similar collage to tell her tale: a series of overlays and soliloquies and narratives in the third person to give shape to the story. It is a complicated and twisted tale: the day of Annie’s wedding to Mason is also the day on which her mother and father are killed in a car crash but the baby to have been born is saved. Annie and Mason take on the infant and raise her as their own thus making Annie both mother and sister of Opal. Their friendship with Jake gives rise to a family of three adults and one baby, soon to grow into a girl.

There is a very dark side to this tale of love and morality, of entanglements and acceptance that brings out some of Hegi’s concerns from her own past with guilt: the guilt of a German woman who was raised in the U S at a time when Germans were seen only as the enemy and being German required an explanation. German, but not Jewish. Guilt suffuses this novel; creeps into many corners, suffuses the lives of the three protagonists and affects little Opal in her every day attempt to come to grips with the world of the grown ups.

The book is troubling and interesting; it reads well. The language to describe the beauty and the mystery of nature is wonderful, precise and evocative of the sea where so much of the action is placed. The following quote is more illustrative of what I have been trying to say than I could ever say myself:

"This twine is thinner than in the earlier versions, and she lays it in an open weave on top of marbelized paper from Italy, all blues and whites, torn into thin shreds that overlap, rising and pushing like choppy waves, making the raft unstable. And on the raft, a momentary sculpture of limbs, dark silhouettes against a low afternoon sun. In motion."

That’s what she works toward. In motion. Or just before motion. When the impact of motion still resonates.

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

I had read this novel when it first came out, in german, was wildly enthusiastic about it and found no one with whom I could share my feelings and thoughts concerning this great book. Now it is translated and you can profit. Great literature, beautiful writing, complicated but intensely interesting plot.

Mercier, which is his nom de plume, is a linguist at the Free University in Berlin and forever interested in origins. This book deals with a pedantic scholar of Classics who, suddenly has a slightly mad impulse to go to Lisbon in search of an enigmatic portuguese aristocrat whose book he had discovered in a second hand bookshop. Earlier in the day he had, quite fortuitously run into a woman who was looking for the toilet in the halls of his university. She also came from Portugal. This so otherwise predictable man sets off on a rather mysterious quest to find out about the author and is thus propelled by a deep inner need to find out more, ever more going along a path of mysteries and coincidences which by their nature force the reader to follow him breathlessly.

Mercier is the author of three novels; this is the last and the best. I started with it and then read the other two, but probably that was not a good idea. This book sums up the others. It is the perfect culmination, so far, of his work.

Do read it.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

The author of the Kite Runner has written his second novel. I had loved that book: a beautifully written modern, moral tale of vast political and personal scope.

The new novel is equally a political story, but played out over thirty years of Afghanistan history. The first book centers around a boy and his maturing, of his life in California aand in Kabul; the second one has a larger cast of characters, a smaller geographical canvas, but here too time is of the essence. Thirty years of war, misery, occupation, Taliban outrages, as they effect two unconnected families in Afghanistan.

Mariam, illegitimate daughter in search of an acknowledgement from her biological father, witness to the suicide of her mother, abused by her terrible and terrifying husband in a marriage arranged by her father, encounters, in this marriage, the new fourteen year old bride of her husband who had decided to take a second wife since the first one had never succeeded in providing him with a son.

I agree, the sentence is too long, but it does summarize this tale. These two women, a generation apart, married to the same disgusting old man, manage, over time, to move from hatred and jealousy of one another, towards love and respect and a sense of belonging together.

I quote:

"Seasons had come and gone; presidents in Kabul had been inaugurated and murdered; an empire had been defeated; old wars had ended and new ones had broken out. But Mariam hardly noticed, hardly cared...the future did not matter. And the past held only this wisdom: that Love was a damaging mistake and its accomplice, Hope, a treacherous illusion." (p.273)

The book is about understanding and evolving. People can learn to change and to act. Women have power. Even when nothing seems possible, love can grow, faith can be nurtured, hope can find a place.

The descriptions of what happened in those thirty years, are brutal. The cruelty and wanton exercise of rage by men with insane convictions concerning the purpose of life and of Allah's wishes, are close to unbearable and surely not comprehensible. How is it possible for humans to torture one another without end? Ever?

Khaled Hosseini has succeeded in writing a shattering description of modern terror and yet he has given us a story of convincing love between people who have managed to hold on to their capacity to hope.

One Way Tickets by Renée Levine

This review is a bit crazy since I am writing a review of a book I wrote. So, I won't critique it, I will simply tell you that I wrote about my life from the perspective of a woman whose family, three generations of them, left home, never to return. Each was issued a one way ticket.

All this more or less began in upper Silesia in the middle of the 19th century and it ended, with me, in Paris via England and the United States with short stops en route. It is the story of a time when loss of family and the transplanting of lives was commonplace. It may, in fact, be also a thoroughly contemporary story.

The book was designed by Sylvia Winter who is a professional designer and who made it beautiful by including many photos taken at the time.

mercredi 29 octobre 2008


Welcome to Renée Levine's Book Reviews
Here we will post Renées reviews about books which are available at the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore, an english bookstore situated in Paris.