Wednesday, July 3, 2013

544. The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith

History: This book is a 1955 psychological thriller novel which first introduced the character of Tom Ripley who returns in the five novels collectively known as the Ripliad.
Plot: Tom Ripley is a young man struggling to make a living in New York City by whatever means necessary, including a series of small-time confidence scams. One day, he is approached by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf to travel to Mongibello, Italy, to persuade Greenleaf's errant son, Dickie, to return to the United States and join the family business. Ripley agrees, exaggerating his friendship with Dickie, a half-remembered acquaintance, in order to gain the elder Greenleaf's trust.
Shortly after his arrival in Italy, Ripley meets Dickie and his friend Marge Sherwood; although Ripley ingratiates himself with Dickie, Marge does not seem to like him very much. As Ripley and Dickie spend more time together, Marge feels left out and begins insinuating to Dickie that Ripley is gay. Dickie then unexpectedly finds Ripley in his bedroom dressed up in his clothes and imitating his mannerisms. Dickie is upset, and from this moment on Ripley senses that his wealthy friend has begun to tire of him, resenting his constant presence and growing personal dependence. Ripley has indeed become obsessed with Dickie, which is further reinforced by his desire to imitate and maintain the wealthy lifestyle Dickie has afforded him.
As a gesture to Ripley, Dickie agrees to travel with him on a short holiday to Sanremo. Sensing that Dickie is about to cut him loose, Ripley finally decides to murder him and assume his identity. When the two set sail in a small rented boat, Ripley beats him to death with an oar, dumps his anchor-weighted body into the water and scuttles the boat.
Ripley assumes Dickie's identity, living off the latter's trust fund and carefully providing communications to Marge to assure her that Dickie has dumped her. Freddie Miles, an old friend of Dickie's from the same social set, encounters Ripley at what he supposes to be Dickie's apartment in Rome. He soon suspects something is wrong. When Miles finally confronts him, Ripley kills him with an ashtray. He later disposes of the body on the outskirts of Rome, attempting to make police believe that Miles has been murdered by robbers.
Ripley enters a cat-and-mouse game with the Italian police, but manages to keep himself safe by restoring his own identity and moving to Venice. In succession Marge, Dickie's father, and an American private detective confront Ripley, who suggests to them that Dickie was depressed and may have committed suicide. Marge stays for a while at Ripley's rented house in Venice. When she discovers Dickie's rings in Ripley's possession, she seems to be on the verge of realising the truth. Panicked, Ripley contemplates murdering Marge, but she is saved when she says that if Dickie gave his rings to Ripley, then he probably meant to kill himself.
The story concludes with Ripley's traveling to Greece and resigning himself to eventually getting caught. On arrival in Greece, however, he discovers that the Greenleaf family has accepted that Dickie is dead and that Ripley shall inherit his fortune according to a will forged by Ripley on Dickie's Hermes typewriter. While the book ends with Ripley happily rich, it also suggests that he may forever be dogged by paranoia. In one of the final paragraphs, he nervously envisions a group of police officers waiting to arrest him, and Highsmith leaves her protagonist wondering, ".....was he going to see policemen waiting for him on every pier that he ever approached?"
Review: Tom Ripley is not above any means of gaining a foothold to his vision of betterment. He extorts random people by impersonating an agent of the IRS and although his endeavor does not bring in any great sum of money, it is more of a glimpse into what Ripley is capable of doing. By targeting unassuming, run-of-the-mill, hard working people most likely to quickly pay a small fee to the IRS, Highsmith brilliantly portrays Ripley as clever, calculating and completely amoral. He knows the difference between right and wrong but he is utterly indifferent to either. This makes for a fascinating protagonist.
Highsmith takes the reader on a dark roller-coaster ride of deception, jealousy, deceit and murder, followed by evasion, more deceit, and more murder. Rather than chilling, senseless violence, Highsmith carefully crafts a mesmerizing tale of pursuit and near-miss as Ripley manages to stay just ahead of capture. He is crafty and calm even when in a panic. For the reader, the result is riveting.
In getting into the eerily empty room that is Tom Ripley’s conscience, I never thought I could sympathize with such a cold and calculating character, yet I was captivated. The story spirals horrifically and the building tension was incredible. There is not one fiber of my being that sympathizes with someone who harms others yet I could not bear the thought of Ripley’s failure. Wow!
Written in the 1950′s, Highsmith exquisitely captures the sense of time and place in New York City and of the enviable life of a wealthy American abroad. She describes in lovely detail the nuances that made life so wonderful for those Ripley admired that it made me want to go back and live there too. Her writing is elegant and clear, simple yet with the depth of distinction to deprive the reader from a restful night’s sleep.
It is not stated in the story whether Dickie or Tom is gay, yet Dickie’s relationship with Marge appears to be platonic due to Dickie’s lack of romantic interest. At one point in the story, Dickie becomes overly sensitive to a comment from Marge that Tom is in love with him. He angrily confronts Tom about this, reminding
us of the Shakespearian adage about protesting too much.
Whether or not the characters are meant to be gay, the attitudes portrayed in the book reflect the 1950s historical setting.
Because the story is set in the ’50s there are elements that will seem dated to the modern reader. For example, Tom takes a boat from New York to Naples, and Mr. Greenleaf sends Tom a telegram. It might be argued that advances in forensic technology and police detection methods mean that Tom would unlikely be able to get away with his crimes today. Nevertheless, the novel remains an exciting suspense thriller with fast-paced action, well-drawn characters and a gripping psychological dimension.
Opening Line: “Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of The Green Cage, heading his way.”
Closing Line: “Amelio. Amelio”
Quotes: “Anticipation! It occurred to him that his anticipation was more pleasant to him than the experiencing.”
Rating: Engaging.

543. Moon Palace – Paul Auster

History: This book was first published in 1989.
Plot: Marco Stanley Fogg, aka M.S., is the son of Emily Fogg. He doesn't know his father. His mother dies because of a car accident when he is eleven years old. He moves to his Uncle Victor, who raises him until Marco goes to a boarding school in Chicago. When he reaches college age, he goes to Columbia University in New York City. After spending his freshman year in a college dormitory, he rents an apartment in New York.
Uncle Victor dies, which makes Marco lose track. After paying the funeral costs, Marco realizes that very little of the money that Uncle Victor gave him is left. He decides to let himself decay, to get out of touch with the world. He makes no effort to earn money. His electricity is cut off, he loses weight, and finally he is told that he must leave his apartment. The day before he is thrown out, Marco decides to ask Zimmer, an old college friend with whom he has lost contact, for help. Zimmer has moved to another apartment, so when Marco arrives at Zimmer's old apartment, he is invited by some strangers to join their breakfast. At that breakfast he meets Kitty Wu for the first time. She seems to fall in love with him. The next day, Marco has to leave his flat, and finds himself on the streets of Manhattan.
Central Park becomes Marco's new home. Here he seeks shelter from the pressure of the Manhattan streets. He finds food in the garbage cans. Marco even manages to stay in touch with what is going on in the world by reading newspapers left by visitors. Although life in Central Park is not very comfortable, he feels at ease because he's enjoying his solitude and he restores the balance between his inner and outer self.
At first, the weather is very good, so where to stay is not a big problem. But after a few weeks the weather changes. In a strong rain shower, Marco becomes ill and retires to a cave in Central Park. After some days of delirium, he crawls out of the cave and has wild hallucinations while lying outside. There, he is finally found by Zimmer and Kitty Wu, who have been looking for him for the whole time. Due to the fever he mistakes Kitty for an Indian and calls her Pocahontas.
Zimmer (the German word for room) is a good friend, hosts Marco in his apartment, bears all his expenses, and helps him to recover. But when Marco has to go to the army physical, he is still rated unfit because of his poor physical and mental state. Marco feels very bad about living at Zimmer's costs, so he finally persuades him to let him do a French translation for him to earn some money. Then he meets Kitty again, and decides to leave Zimmer. They lose touch, and when, after thirteen years, they happen to run into each other in a busy street, Marco learns that Zimmer has married and become a typical middle-class citizen.
After he has finished his work on the translation, Marco searches for another job offer. He finds a job at Effing's, where he is hired for reading books to Effing and driving the old, blind and disabled man through the city of New York in his wheelchair. Effing is a strange man who tries to teach Marco in his own way, taking nothing for granted. Marco has to describe to Effing all the things he can see while driving around. This way, Marco learns to look at the things around him very precisely. After, Effing tells Marco to do the main work he was hired for: Write his obituary. Effing tells him the main facts of his life as the famous painter Julian Barber and his conversion to Thomas Effing. He went to Utah with Byrne, a topographer, and Scoresby, a guide, to paint the vast country. Byrne fell from a high place and the guide flees from the place, leaving Barber alone in the middle of the desert. Barber finds a cave where a hermit used to live and begins to live there. He kills the Gresham brothers, 3 bandits, and takes the money to San Francisco, where he officially takes the name "Thomas Effing". He becomes rich, but one day someone tells him he's very similar to Julian Barber, a famous painter who disappeared. He sinks in depression and fear and begins frequenting China Town, taking drugs, etc. But one day someone attacks him, rushes and hits a street lamp, becoming paraplegic. He stops having such an unhealthy life, and decides to go to France. He comes back to the USA in 1939 fleeing from the Nazis.
Solomon Barber is Marco's father and Effing's son. He is extremely fat (which contrasts to Marco's period of starvation) and didn't know his father nor that he has a son. He inherits most of the fortune of Effing. He meets Marco after the death of Effing to learn about his father and finds a son. Marco, in the family cyclic pattern, doesn't know that Barber is his father. Barber had a relationship with one of his students, Emily, and never knew she was pregnant. Marco learns the truth when he sees Barber crying in front of Emily's grave.
Review:  Both Marco and Solomon are raised without having a father. This has a major impact on them:
Marco completely loses orientation when Uncle Victor dies. He is very upset about not knowing his father. Throughout the novel, Marco tries to find his roots. Shortly after finding his father, he loses him again.
Solomon writes a book that deals with the topic of a fatherless life, showing his own internal quest for identity.
Paul Auster looks at the meanings of the moon in Moon Palace: “The moon is many things all at once, a touchstone. It’s the moon as myth, as ‘radiant Diana, image of all that is dark within us’; the imagination, love, madness. At the same time, it’s the moon as object, as celestial body, as lifeless stone hovering in the sky. But it’s also the longing for what is not, the unattainable, the human desire for transcendence. And yet it’s history as well, particularly American history. First, there’s Columbus, then there was the discovery of the west, then finally there is outer space: the moon as the last frontier. But Columbus had no idea that he’d discovered America. He thought he had sailed to India, to China. In some sense Moon Palace is the embodiment of that misconception, an attempt to think of America as China. But the moon is also repetition, the cyclical nature of human experience. There are three stories in the book, and each one is finally the same. Each generation repeats the mistakes of the previous generation. So it’s also a critique of the notion of progress.”
A more prosaic explanation of the title is that the Moon Palace was a Chinese restaurant (now defunct) in the Morningside Heights neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which was a popular student hangout when Auster was studying at Columbia University.
Some aspects of the main character's life in Moon Palace mirror the life of the author. He was a descendant of an Austrian Jewish family, born on the Third of February 1947 in Newark, New Jersey, which is about 15 miles west of New York City. He also attended high school there. In his childhood, Auster's father Samuel Auster was often absent. Samuel Auster was a businessman who left the house in the morning before his son was awake and returned home when he was already in bed. Auster always searched for someone to replace his father. Unlike his father his mother gave Auster very much attention. In fact this may also put a different light on the title as the moon is symbolic of the female or the mother. Paul Auster and Marco Fogg were both born in 1947. Marco's, Solomon's and Paul's father were all absent during their sons' childhoods. When Paul's uncle travelled to Europe he stored several boxes of books at the Austers' home. Paul Auster read one book after the other. The same goes for Marco, who read his Uncle Victor's books.
Opening Line: “It was the summer that men first walked on the moon.”
Closing Line: “I kept my eyes on it as it rose in the night sky, not turning away until it had found it’s place in the darkness.”
Quotes: “It often happens that things are other than what they seem, and you can get yourself into trouble by jumping to conclusions.”
Rating: Very very good.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

542. The Crow Road – Iain Banks

History: This book was published in 1992.
Plot: This Bildungsroman is set in the fictional Argyll town of Gallanach (by its description, reminiscent of Oban but on the north east shore of Loch Crinan), the real village of Lochgair, and in Glasgow where Prentice McHoan lives. Prentice's uncle Rory has disappeared eight years previous while writing a book called The Crow Road. Prentice becomes obsessed with papers his uncle left behind and sets out to solve the mystery. Along the way he must cope with estrangement from his father, unrequited love, sibling rivalry, and failure at his studies.
The estrangement from his father concerns belief in God or an afterlife. Prentice cannot accept a universe without some higher power, some purpose; he can't believe that people can just cease to exist when they die. His father dogmatically denies the existence of God, universal purpose, and the afterlife.
A parallel plot is Prentice's gradual transition from an adolescent fixation on one young woman to a more mature love for another.
Prentice's efforts to piece together Uncle Rory's fragmentary notes and the minimal clues surrounding his disappearance mirror his efforts to make sense of the world, love, and life in general. The narrative is also fragmentary, leaping days, months, years, or decades back and forth with little or no warning, so the reader must also piece things together.
Review: Lots of people take the crow road in this book as we follow the narrator, Prentice McHoan, a student from the fictional town of Gallanach in Argyll and Bute, Scotland. He’s the classic young man on a journey, and he’s got a quest - to find a missing person - but along the way he has lots of sex, drink and drugs, and has his heart broken and mended. Everything a growing boy needs, in fact.
Prentice is drawn into a family mystery involving the disappearance of his favourite uncle, Rory McHoan - a peaceable, bohemian, motorbiking travel writer. When we begin, Rory's been gone for years, but the mystery takes a new twist after the death of Prentice's grandmother brings him back to Gallanach from Glasgow, where he's been studying.
At the funeral, Prentice meets up with his auntie Janice, uncle Rory's partner at the time of his disappearance. After bedding her - and it wouldn't be an Iain Banks book without some form of taboo-busting smut - Prentice comes into possession of some of Rory's papers and a few ancient computer disks. This unfinished writing project is called "The Crow Road".
In deciphering it, Prentice lifts the lid on secrets that plague the lives of his family - including his father, Kenneth, a children's writer and committed atheist, his uncle Fergus, who owns the local glassware factory, and also his childhood friend Ashley, whose uncle Lachlan, you might say, has one eye on events.
There's a mystery story - two, in fact, if we separate the quest to find out what happened to Rory and the struggle to reactivate and decipher his wonky old computer disks - but it's not a mystery novel. And despite the bildungsroman framing, Prentice's journey isn't the sole driver of the plot, either. This book has otherworldly concerns on its mind; in examining very big things in microcosm through Prentice's family, we gain an understanding of sorts about the universe - or at least, we form a truce with our own curiosity as to what it's all about. We miss a lot of things, Banks says. Often the greatest truths are right there under our nose.
Opening Line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
Closing Line: “I thought of Ashley, on the other side of that ocean, and wondered what she was doing right now, and hoped that she was well, and happy, and maybe thinking of me, and then I just stood there, grinning like a fool, and took a deep, deep breath of that sharp, smoke-scented air and raised my arms to the open sky, and said, ‘Ha!’
Quotes: “People can be teachers and idiots; they can be philosophers and idiots; they can be politicians and idiots... in fact I think they have to be... a genius can be an idiot. The world is largely run for and by idiots; it is no great handicap in life and in certain areas is actually a distinct advantage and even a prerequisite for advancement.”
Rating: Uninteresting

541: Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison

History: This book was published in 1977. The novel has faced several challenges and bans in schools throughout the U.S. since 1993. As recently as 2010, the novel was challenged and later reinstated at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis, IN. listed Song of Solomon as Barack Obama's favorite book in its list: "40 favorite books of famous people".
Plot: Macon "Milkman" Dead III, derives his nickname from the fact that he was breastfed during childhood (Macon's age can be inferred as he was wearing pants with elastic instead of a diaper, and that he later forgets the event, suggesting he was still rather young). Milkman's father's employee, Freddie, happens to see him through the window being breastfed by his mother. He quickly gains a reputation for being a "Momma's boy" in direct contrast to his (future) best friend, Guitar, who is motherless and fatherless.
Milkman has two sisters, "First Corinthians" and "Magdelene called Lena." The daughters of the family are named by putting a pin in the Bible, while the eldest son is named after his father. The first Macon Dead's name was the result of an administrative error when Milkman's grandfather had to register subsequent to the end of slavery.
Milkman's mother (Ruth Foster Dead) is the daughter of the town's only black doctor; she makes her husband feel inadequate, and it is clear she idolized her father, Doctor Foster, to the point of obsession. After her father dies, her husband claims to have found her in bed with the dead body, sucking his fingers. Ruth later tells Milkman that she was kneeling at her father's bedside kissing the only part of him that remained unaffected by the illness from which he died. These conflicting stories expose the problems between his parents and show Milkman that "truth" is difficult or impossible to obtain. Macon (Jr.) is often violently aggressive towards Ruth because he believes that she was involved sexually with her father and loved her father more than her own husband. On one occasion, Milkman punches his father after he strikes Ruth, exposing the growing rift between father and son.
In contrast, Macon Dead Jr.'s sister, Pilate, is seen as nurturing—an Earth Mother character. Born without a navel, she is a somewhat mystical character. It is strongly implied that she is Divine—a female Christ-in spite of her name. Macon (Jr.) has not spoken to his sister for years and does not think highly of her. She, like Macon, has had to fend for herself from an early age after their father's murder, but she has dealt with her past in a different way than Macon, who has embraced money as the way to show his love for his father. Pilate has a daughter, Reba, and a granddaughter named Hagar. Hagar falls desperately and obsessively in love with Milkman, and is unable to cope with his rejection, attempting to kill him at least six times.
Hagar is not the only character who attempts to kill Milkman. Guitar, Milkman's erstwhile best friend, tries to kill Milkman more than once after incorrectly suspecting that Milkman has cheated him out of hidden gold, a fortune he planned to use to help his Seven Days group fund their revenge killings in response to killings of blacks.
Searching for the gold near the old family farm in Pennsylvania, Milkman stops at the rotting Butler Mansion, former home of the people who killed his ancestor to claim the farm. Here he meets Circe, an almost supernaturally old ex-slave of the Butlers. She tells Milkman of his family history and this leads him to the town of Shalimar. There he learns his great-grandfather Solomon was said to have escaped slavery by flying back to Africa, leaving behind twenty-one children and his wife Ryna, who goes crazy with loss. Returning home, he learns that Hagar has died of a broken heart. He accompanies Pilate back to Shalimar, where she is accidentally shot and killed by Guitar, who had intended to kill Milkman.
At the end of the novel, Milkman leaps towards Guitar. This leap is ambiguous, it is not explicitly stated that either or both is killed. However it brings the novel full circle from the suicidal "flight" of Robert Smith, the insurance agent, to Milkman's "flight" in which he learns to fly like Pilate
Review: Toni Morrison’s first two books -- ''The Bluest Eye'' with the purity of its terrors and ''Sula'' with its dense poetry and the depth of its probing into a small circle of lives -- were strong novels. Yet, firm as they both were in achievement and promise, they didn't fully forecast her new book, ''Song of Solomon.'' Here the depths of the younger work are still evident, but now they thrust outward, into wider fields, for longer intervals, encompassing many more lives. The result is a long prose tale that surveys nearly a century of American history as it impinges upon a single family. In short, this is a full novel -- rich, slow enough to impress itself upon us like a love affair or a sickness -- not the two-hour penny dreadful which is again in vogue nor one of the airless cat's cradles custom-woven for the delight and job-assistance of graduate students of all ages.
''Song of Solomon'' isn't, however, cast in the basically realistic mode of most family novels. In fact, its negotiations with fantasy, fable, song and allegory are so organic, continuous and unpredictable as to make any summary of its plot sound absurd; but absurdity is neither Morrison's strategy nor purpose. The purpose seems to be communication of painfully discovered and powerfully held convictions about the possibility of transcendence within human life, on the time-scale of a single life. The strategies are multiple and depend upon the actions of a large cast of black Americans, most of them related by blood. But after the loving, comical and demanding polyphony of the early chapters (set in Michigan in the early 1930's), the theme begins to settle on one character and to develop around and out of him.
His name is Macon Dead, called ''Milkman'' because his mother nursed him well past infancy. He is the son of an upper middle-class Northern black mother and a father with obscure working-class Southern origins. These origins, which Milkman's father is intent on concealing, fuel him in a merciless drive toward money and safety -- over and past the happiness of wife and daughters and son. So the son grows up into chaos and genuine danger -- the homicidal intentions of a woman he spurned after years of love, and an accidental involvement with a secret ring of lifelong acquaintances who are sworn to avenge white violence, eye for eye.
Near midpoint in the book -- when we may begin to wonder if the spectacle of Milkman's apparently thwarted life is sufficient to hold our attention much longer -- there is an abrupt shift. Through his involvement with his father's sister, the bizarre and anarchic Pilate (whose dedication to life and feeling is directly opposed to her brother's methodical acquisition of things), and with Guitar, one of the black avengers, Milkman is flung out of his private maelstrom. He is forced to discover, explore, comprehend and accept a world more dangerous than the Blood Bank (the ghetto neighborhood of idle eccentrics, whores, bullies and lunatics, which he visited as a boy). But this world is also rewarding, as it opens into the larger, freer sphere of time and human contingency and reveals the possibility of knowing one's origins and of realizing the potential found in the lives, failures and victories of one's ancestors.
Although it begins as a hungry hunt for a cache of gold that his father and Pilate left in a cave in Virginia, Milkman's search is finally a search for family history. As he travels through Pennsylvania and Virginia, acquiring the jagged pieces of a story that he slowly assembles into a long pattern of courage and literal transcendence of tragedy, he is strengthened to face the mortal threat that rises from his own careless past to meet him at the end.
The end is unresolved. Does Milkman survive to use his new knowledge, or does he die at the hands of a hateful friend? The hint is that he lives -- in which case Toni Morrison has her next novel ready and waiting: Milkman's real manhood, the means he invents for transmitting or squandering the legacy he has discovered.
But that very uncertainty is one more sign of the book's larger truthfulness (no big, good novel has ever really ended; and none can, until it authoritatively describes the extinction from the universe of all human life); and while there are problems (occasional abortive pursuits of a character who vanishes, occasional luxuriant pauses on detail and the understandable but weakening omission of active white characters), ''Song of Solomon'' easily lifts above them on the wide slow wings of human sympathy, well-informed wit and the rare plain power to speak wisdom to other human beings. A long story, then, and better than good. Toni Morrison has earned attention and praise. Few Americans know, and can say, more than she has in this wise and spacious novel.
Opening Line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life insurance agent, promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three oclock.”
Closing Line: “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
Quotes: “She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it's there, because it can't hurt, and because what difference does it make?”
Rating: Good

540. Sexing the Cherry – Jeanette Winterson

History: This book was published in 1989.
Plot: Set in 17th century London, Sexing the Cherry is about the journeys of a mother, known as The Dog Woman, and her protégé, Jordan. They journey in a space-time flux: across the seas to find exotic fruits such as bananas and pineapples; and across time, with glimpses of "the present" and references to Charles I of England and Oliver Cromwell. The mother’s physical appearance is somewhat "grotesque". She is a giant, wrapped in a skirt big enough to serve as a ship’s sail and strong enough to fling an elephant. She is also hideous, with smallpox scars in which fleas live, a flat nose and foul teeth. Her son, however, is proud of her, as no other mother can hold a good dozen oranges in her mouth all at once. Ultimately, their journey is a journey in search of The Self.
Review: The central relationship is between Jordan and the Dog Woman. It is a savage love, an unorthodox love, it is family life carried to the grotesque, but it is not a parody or a negative. The boisterous surrealism of their bond is in the writing itself. By writing the familiar into the strange, by wording the unlovely into words-as-jewels, what is outcast can be brought home. I have also thought of myself as an outcast, but I have made myself a territory by writing it. Sexing the Cherry is a cross-time novel in the same way that The Passion is cross-gender. The narrative moves through time, but also operates outside it. At the centre of the book are the stories of the Twelve Dancing Princess, each only a page long, written as a kind of fugue. The stories aren't just parachuted in there, they are integral to the whole, in just the same way that the Percival stories are integral to Oranges. That is, they tell us something we need to know to interpret the book.
Opening Line: “My name is Jordan.”
Closing Line: “Empty space and points of light.”
Quotes: “The Buddhists say there are 149 ways to God. I'm not looking for God, only for myself, and that is far more complicated. God has had a great deal written about Him; nothing has been written about me. God is bigger, like my mother, easier to find, even in the dark. I could be anywhere, and since I can't describe myself I can't ask for help.”
Rating: Okay.

Monday, March 25, 2013

539. Ignorance – Milan Kundera

History: This book was written in 1999 in French and published in 2000. It was translated into English in 2002.
Plot: Czech expatriate Irena, who has been living in France, decides to return to her home after twenty years. During the trip she meets, by chance, Josef, a fellow émigré who was briefly her lover in Prague.
The novel examines the feelings instigated by the return to a homeland, which has ceased to be a home. In doing so, it reworks the Odyssean themes of homecoming. It paints a poignant picture of love and its manifestations, a recurring theme in Kundera's novels. The novel explores and centres around the way that people have selective memories as a precursor to ignorance. The concept of ignorance is presented as a two-fold phenomenon; in which ignorance can be a willing action that people participate in, such as avoiding unpleasant conversation topics or acting out. Yet also exploring the involuntary aspects of being ignorant, such as feigning ignorance of the past or avoiding the truth.
Review: Since Milan Kundera stopped writing fiction in Czech, he has produced two slim novels in French, Slowness (1996) and Identity (1998). Both are set in France, where he has lived since 1975. Ignorance, too, is a compact exploration of variations on a theme: that of "home", nostalgia for homeland, and the irony of the Odyssean homecoming. Yet like much of Kundera's fiction, its deeper concern is with memory and forgetting.
Irene is a Czech émigré who has spent 20 years in Paris since the crushing of the Prague spring in 1968, alternating between waking nostalgia and the fearful "emigration-dream" of finding herself back in her native land. With the collapse of communism in 1989, she bows to pressure from French friends to embark on the "great return", the romantic voyage "home", only to rediscover that she had left partly to escape her over bearing mother. "The implacable forces of history that had attacked her freedom had set her free."
At Paris airport she meets Josef, a vet with whom she had a brief encounter in Prague, now a widower living in Denmark and making his first journey back. He too finds his emigration was driven by a need to escape - in his case his noxious, masochistic memory. With excruciating insight, Kundera homes in on the alienation of the returning émigré. Trying on a dress, Irene is momentarily imprisoned in the life she might have led had she stayed. For Josef, seeing his old watch on his brother's wrist "threw him into a strange unease. He had the sense he was coming back into the world as might a dead man emerging from his tomb after 20 years". His mother-tongue is an "unknown language whose every word he understood". Their memories are out of sync with those they have left behind. Encountering resentment and "suffering-contests" over who had the hardest time under the regime, Irene is shocked by friends' indifference to the 20-year "odyssey" that separates her from them but which has become her identity; she is like Odysseus after his 20-year wandering, "amazed to realise that his life, the very essence of his life, its centre, its treasure, lay outside Ithaca". Irene senses that, as a condition of reacceptance and pardon, they "want to amputate 20 years of my life from me".
Kundera also skewers facile assumptions about the émigré. Irene is dropped by a Parisian friend who feels duped by her refusal to confirm her suffering with a joyous homecoming. According to Irene, the French, for whom "judgments precede experience", were "already thoroughly informed that Stalinism is an evil and emigration is a tragedy. They weren't interested in what we thought, they were interested in us as living proof of what they thought".
Their alienation inexorably brings Irene and Josef together. Yet the novel also reveals how the selectiveness of memory, regardless of geographical displacement, can create rifts both with our earlier selves and between people who ostensibly share a past. Finding in his teenage diaries evidence of "sentimentality mixed with sadism", Josef wonders: "How can two such alien, such opposite beings have the same handwriting? What common essence is it that made a single person of him and this little snot?" He remembers next to nothing of his break-up with a girlfriend in his adolescence, but the novel reveals her trauma, which led to a botched suicide attempt that left her frostbitten, her beauty marred by an amputated ear.
Irene too remembers perfectly her first encounter with Josef, while he recalls nothing, not even her name. Their attraction is based on an "unjust and revolting inequality", and is exposed as a delusion in an inevitable sex scene. As Kundera once told Philip Roth, the erotic scenes in which all his novels culminate are the "focus where all the themes of the story converge and where its deepest secrets are located". This is a pity, since the eroticism is banal and tawdry; the couple are aroused by "dirty" words in their mother tongue, while in a parallel scene, Irene's mother seduces her daughter's cuckolded Swedish lover, Gustaf. The denouement, an unravelling of illusion, proves bathetic rather than profound.
There are also inane, inchoate parallels between Irene and Josef's early girlfriend, whose suicide attempt was born of overpowering "nostalgia" for a dawning past, and also resulted in "amputation". Yet the novel is propelled by Kundera's ironic probing of the mythology of home, the delusions of roots. Nostalgia, from the Greek nostos (return) and algos (suffering), is the "suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return". Provocatively, the novel suggests an inverse relationship between memory and nostalgia: lone exiles are amnesiac, for nostalgia "suffices unto itself... so fully absorbed is it by its suffering and nothing else". Memory, however, relies on collective reinforcement. Émigrés in "compatriot colonies" retell tales to the "point of nausea", rendering them unforgettable. Josef opts to return to Denmark, realizing that if he stays in Prague he will lose the memory of his dead wife, whom no one asks after.
Challenging the "moral hierarchy of emotions" laid down when Homer "glorified nostalgia with a laurel wreath", Ignorance tilts at the romantic assumption that separation from the land of one's birth must be a kind of death - just as, for the artist, it is casually and erroneously assumed to be the death of creativity.
Opening Line: “What are you still doing here?”
Closing Line: “Through the port hole, he saw far off in the sky a low wooden fence, and a brick house with a slender fir tree like a lifted arm before it.”
Quotes: “In Irena’s head the alcohol plays a double role: it frees her fantasy, encourages her boldness, makes her sensual, and at the same time it dims her memory. She makes love wildly, lasciviously, and at the same time the curtain of oblivion wraps her lewdness in an all-concealing darkness. As if a poet were writing his greatest poem with ink that instantly disappears.”
Rating: Difficult

538. Clarissa – Samuel Richardson

History: This novel was published in 1748.
Plot: Clarissa Harlowe, the tragic heroine of Clarissa, is a beautiful and virtuous young lady whose family has become wealthy only recently and now desires to become part of the aristocracy. Their original plan was to concentrate the wealth and lands of the Harlowes into the possession of Clarissa's brother James Harlowe, whose wealth and political power will lead to his being granted a title. Clarissa's grandfather leaves her a substantial piece of property upon his death, and a new route to the nobility opens through Clarissa marrying Robert Lovelace, heir to an earldom. James's response is to provoke a duel with Lovelace, who is seen thereafter as the family's enemy. James also proposes that Clarissa marry Roger Solmes, who is willing to trade properties with James to concentrate James's holdings and speed his becoming Lord Harlowe. The family agrees and attempts to force Clarissa to marry Solmes, whom she finds physically disgusting as well as boorish.
Desperate to remain free, she begins a correspondence with Lovelace. When her family's campaign to force her marriage reaches its height, Lovelace tricks her into eloping with him. Joseph Leman, the Harlowes' servant, shouts and makes noise so it may seem like the family has awoken and discovered that Clarissa and Lovelace are about to run away. Frightened of the possible aftermath, Clarissa leaves with Lovelace but becomes his prisoner for many months. She is kept at many lodgings and even a brothel, where the women are disguised as high-class ladies by Lovelace himself. She refuses to marry him on many occasions, longing to live by herself in peace. She eventually runs away but Lovelace finds her and tricks her into returning to the brothel.
Lovelace intends to marry Clarissa to avenge her family's treatment of him and wants to possess both her body as well as her mind. He believes if she loses her virtue, she will be forced to marry him on any terms. As he is more and more impressed by Clarissa, he finds it difficult to believe that virtuous women do not exist.
The pressure he finds himself under, combined with his growing passion for Clarissa, drives him to extremes and eventually he rapes her by drugging her. Through this action, Clarissa must accept and marry Lovelace. It is suspected that Mrs. Sinclair (the brothel manager) and the other prostitutes assist Lovelace during the rape.
Lovelace's action backfires and Clarissa is ever more adamantly opposed to marrying a vile and corrupt individual like Lovelace. Eventually, Clarissa manages to escape from the brothel but becomes dangerously ill due to the mental duress of many months caused by "the vile Lovelace."
Clarissa is sheltered by the kind but poor Smiths and during her sickness she gains another worshipper — John Belford, another libertine who happens to be Lovelace's best friend. Belford is amazed at the way Clarissa handles her approaching death and laments what Lovelace has done. In one of the many letters sent to Lovelace he writes "if the divine Clarissa asks me to slit thy throat, Lovelace, I shall do it in an instance." Eventually, surrounded by strangers and her cousin Col. Morden, Clarissa dies in the full consciousness of her virtue and trusting in a better life after death. Belford manages Clarissa's will and ensures that all her articles and money go into the hands of the individuals she desires should receive them.
Lovelace seems to have moved on but Belford sends him Clarissa's will. He is shattered when he reads it and can live no longer. Col. Morden has gone back to Italy and he knows that there is only one way to atone for his sins. Lovelace asks Morden for a duel (although not directly) and they meet somewhere in Italy. Lovelace fights Morden and keeps on getting injured. He pretends to be not injured and goes after Morden many times — each time receiving another deadly blow. Eventually Morden realizes that he has been injured very badly and might die. The duel ends, Morden leaves and Lovelace is taken to his lodgings. The doctor is unable to do anything and Lovelace dies a day afterwards. Before dying he says "let this expiate!"
Clarissa's relatives finally realise the misery they have caused but discover that they are too late and Clarissa has already died. The story ends with an account of the fate of the other characters.
Review: Samuel Richardson's massive 1747-8 novel, "Clarissa," is much like Richardson's first novel, "Pamela," "Clarissa" deals with the torments of a virtuous young lady abducted by a rake/libertine (in modern parlance, a rapist) who submits the heroine to a series of trials. Unlike Pamela, a lower class maiden, Clarissa is a member of an established and wealthy family. This change in social situation allows Richardson to explore a host of new issues, with the primary goal of moral didacticism remaining intact between the two.
Clarissa Harlowe, the most beautiful and exemplary of her sex, is being imposed upon by her implacable family to marry one Mr. Solmes, a man of no mean fortune, but whose ethics, especially with regard to his own family, are suspect. Simultaneously, Clarissa's sister, Arabella, has just rejected a proposal from one Robert Lovelace, the heir of a nobleman, educated and refined, but known for his libertinism - his tendency and enjoyment of seducing young women and then abandoning them. Lovelace falls in love, or in lust, with Clarissa, and after he and Clarissa's brother James, heir to the Harlowe fortune, engage in a near fatal duel, Clarissa's continued correspondence with Lovelace becomes a major thorn in the side of the Harlowes' plans for Clarissa. The Harlowes continue to urge the addresses of Mr. Solmes while vilifying Lovelace - Clarissa not approving of either - and when her family's insitence becomes insupportable to Clarissa, the utterly demonic Lovelace takes advantage, whisking her away from a seemingly inevitable union with Solmes. Thus begins an absolutely terrifying journey for Clarissa through the darkness of humanity, as Lovelace plots and executes his seduction of the 'divine' Clarissa.
An epistolary novel, "Clarissa" is written in the form of a series of letters spanning nine months, principally between Clarissa and her best friend and iconoclast, Anna Howe, and between Lovelace and a fellow libertine, John Belford. Richardson's 'to the moment' style of writing gives a minute account of everything that happens to the main characters almost as it happens, giving the novel a highly dramatic sense of urgency. The four major correspondents, as well as others, also give the novel a well-developed sense of perspective, as we get not only the events, but biased opinions and readings of all the other characters, making the events at times difficult to follow, but at the same time, marvelously rich and complex.
Some of the most interesting facets of this novel are its interactions with the law, primarily inheritance law, the contrast between history and story, and at the forefront, the debate over gender roles in marriage. Almost of a piece with the novel's legal issues, Richardson examines the vagueries of semantics - what do words mean? How are words regarded and used differently by men and women? Richardson also confronts the way we read and interpret 'truth' - in a book composed of letters, subjectively written and read, where can we look to for 'truth'?
Among the characters in the novel, by far the most captivating and challenging in "Clarissa" is the aforementioned Anna Howe. The ways she clashes with tradition and propriety throughout the novel are entertaining, and very much reminiscent of the eponymous heroine of Defoe's "Moll Flanders."
Opening Line: “I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbance that have happened in your family.”
Closing Line: “But where the contrary of all these qualities shock the understanding, the extravagant performance will be judged tedious, though no longer than a fairy-tale.”
Quotes: “For love must be a very foolish thing to look back upon, when it has brought persons born to affluence into indigence, and laid a generous mind under obligation and dependence.”
Rating: I confess I only skimmed.