Monday, December 13, 2010

378. Glamorama – Bret Easton Ellis

History: This book was published in 1990. Fans have noted similarities to the Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander. Ellis stated that he is aware of the similarities, and went on to say that he considered and attempted to take legal action.
Plot: Glamorama begins with a fast-paced social comedy sending up Manhattan's hectically empty celebrity scene. The hero, Victor Ward, is a male model with a sexy smile, cubed abs, and part of a degree in experimental orchestra. He can recite the exact length, in seconds, of every pop song ever recorded, but doesn't know the difference between a platypus and a platitude ("One's a . . . beaver?" he attempts).
Contacted by a mysterious stranger who seems to have wandered out of a Pynchon novel, our himbo hero is offered a bundle of cash to go to England on a secret mission that has something to do with a former girlfriend. Then the story gets REALLY weird with supermodel terrorists, doppelgangers, altered identities, bombings, torture, an omnipresent film crew, a film-within-a-film crew and, inexplicably, copious amounts of confetti. Nothing, however, is what it seems, and soon poor Victor is sucked into a nightmare world of high fashion, international terrorism, and global conspiracies.
Victor Ward, novel's lead character, had previously appeared as Victor Johnson in The Rules of Attraction (1987). In Glamorama, now an "A-list model, would-be-actor and current "It boy"an uberstereotype of the male model, His lifestyle is the extreme of everything the current culture worships: he can't avoid thinking in brand names and image and speaks with lines from pop songs. Victor is terrified by the coldbloodedness he encounters when he becomes embroiled in international terrorism. As an unintelligent narrator, Victor (through his inability to comprehend his situation), underlines how the world of celebrity in Glamorama is inescapable. Compared to other Ellis' protagonists, Victor is less "sensitive and insightful" but he is nevertheless an "[un]sympathetic protagonist (in his own way, he's as morally bankrupt as ... Patrick Bateman). As narrator, Victor's perceptions sum up the glamor world's disconnection from what the rest of us consider "real life"...Everything he sees is a brand name."CNN speculates when Victor begins speaking to the novel's "film crew" (one of its literary devices), that this could mean that the character is schizophrenic. The mysterious F. Fred Palakon first appears a quarter of the way into the novel, when pays Victor $300,000 to track down his former Camden classmate Jamie Fields, a double-agent working in the terrorist organisation with which Victor becomes involved. It is never clarified exactly which political organisation Palakon appears to be working for; he even appears alongside Senator Johnson, Victor's father, a United States Senator with ambitions to become President. Of Palakon, 'the director' says "We've been through this a hundred times... There is no Palakon. I've never heard that name. Victor's girlfriend Chloe Byrnes is a supermodel and a recovering drug addict. Alison Poole, the main character from Jay McInerney's 1988 novel Story of My Life, appears, having also previously appeared in American Psycho in 1992. In Glamorama, Alison is "[Victor's] boss's girlfriend (another supermodel). Bobby Hughes is a successful male model and the leader of his international terrorist group. Lauren Hynde from The Rules of Attraction also reappears, having become a successful actress with ties to Hughes' terrorist organization.
Review: Seven years in the works, the novel is 482 pages of conceptually ambitious social satire; a scathing look at the society of the spectacle. The novel plays upon the conspiracy thriller conceit of someone "behind all the awful events", to dramatise the revelation of a world of random horror. The lack of resolution contributes to Ellis' artistic effect. The obsession with beauty is reflected in consistent namedropping; this satirizes Victor's obsession with looks, and perhaps is indicative of the author's own attraction to glamor.
Ellis drops names in Glamorama so often that Entertainment Weekly describes "Nary a sentence... escapes without a cameo from someone famous, quasi-famous, or formerly famous. In fact, in some sentences, Ellis cuts out those pesky nouns and verbs and simply lists celebrities." Namedropping and commoditization have a depersonalizing effect. In parody of how people now think in modern terms, Ellis lists "the songs that are playing in the background, or even quoting them, as he does with Oasis' "Champagne Supernova"; in effect, the novel is provided with a movie soundtrack. As such, the book feels at times like a movie, and sometimes more specifically, a snuff film. New technology such as photo manipulation software (e.g. "PhotoSoap for Windows 95") are featured in the novel. This creates an ironic situation in which Victor, the character obsessed by appearances, is haunted by fake images that appear real which implicate him in a murder; it becomes hard to tell what is real in the 'modern' world. As such, "meaningful identity is obliterated"; this furthers the recurring joke from American Psycho wherein "characters are always getting confused by their friends with other people, with no noticeable consequences".
In our post 9/11 era, where people who “look” like terrorists are racially profiled whereas fashion models, who could be just as twisted, slide by unnoticed, the potential for danger is everywhere.
Opening Line: “Specks – specks all over the third panel, see? –no, that one –the second one up from the floor and I wanted to point this out to someone yesterday but a photo shoot intervened and Yaki Nakamari or whatever the hell designer’s name is --a master craftsman not - mistook me for someone else so I couldn’t register the complaint, but, gentlemen -and ladies -there they are: specks, annoying, tiny specks, and they don’t look accidental but like they were somehow done by a machine -so I don’t want a lot of description, just the story, streamlined, no frills, the lowdown: who, what, where, when and don’t leave out why, though I’m getting the distinct impresssion by the looks on your sorry faces that why won’t get answered -now, come on, goddammit, what’s the story?”
Closing Line: “The future is that mountain.”
Quotes: "The better you look, the more you see."
Rating: Okay.. monotonous at times, ridiculous story line.

377. Giles Goat Boy – John Barth

History: This book was written in 1966. It is a satire and allegory of the American campus culture of the time.
Plot: It is centered on the hero, George Giles, and his rise from farm animal to Grand Tutor of the New Tammany College. The book is set in a vast university that is a symbol for the world. The novel's protagonist, Billy Bockfuss (also called George Giles, the goat-boy), was raised with herds of goats on a university farm after being found as a baby in the bowels of the giant West Campus Automatic Computer (WESCAC). The WESCAC plans to create a being called GILES (Grand-Tutorial Ideal, Laboratory Eugenical Specimen) that would possess superhuman abilities. Billy's foster father, who tends the herd, suspects Billy of being GILES but tries to groom him to be humanity's savior and to stop WESCAC's domination over humans. His quest is singularly to be a hero, but the tale is a multifaceted one of his becoming. Numerous mythological and Christian allegories make his fate seem almost predestined, regardless of his innocence. Parallels to everything from the Cold War to 1960s academia to religion abound. A hypertext encyclopedia also figures into the novel, quite presciently given the 1966 publication.
Review: Giles Goat-Boy is a farcical twist on human history. Structured loosely around Otto Rank’s theories about the ritual wandering hero and Joseph Campbell’s “chart for a perfect mythological hero” (another obsession of Barth’s), the book tells the story of a would-be Messiah raised by goats who launches on a voyage of prophecy and discovery in a giant University, which is really the world in microcosm. the novel proper, which tells how George Giles was born (possibly a computer accident) into a goat herd, made his way into New Tammany College (the world of men), became Grand Tutor and prophet of the West Campus (the Western world as opposed to the Eastern) and, like Don Quixote, Candide, Leopold Bloom, etc., sought the meaning of good and evil, innocence and existence, action and identity, passion and thought.
The message of the syllabus is ambiguous -- except perhaps that absolutes are noncognizable, that thinking is a passion and most passionately expressed in humor, and that, except for these, the world is going to hell. Fortunately, it won't get there because -- Mr. Barth proves once more -- old jokes never die, they just lie in wait for resurrection. The jokes here -- sexual, scatological, gastronomical, existential, political, linguistic, literary conventions and parodies -- can be traced to Rabelais, "Tristram Shandy," Lewis Carroll, Joyce, Nabokov, the Beatles and Bennett Cerf, among others, which should given an idea of the truly astonishing flavor of this lemon meringue pie of a book.
Opening Line: “George is my name; my deeds have been heard of in Tower Hall, and my childhood has been chronicled in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.”
Closing Line: “Passed, but not forgotten, I shall rest.”
Quotes: “Al Chikiel my green loins called as she followed after him: poor pretty doe fretful to be bucked, hie here if it’s a beast you’re after!”
Rating: Awful. I got to page 100 and put it down.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

376. The Monk - M.G. Lewis

History: This book was written by Matthew Gregory Lewis, published in 1796. It was written before the author turned 20, in the space of 10 weeks. Sensationalistic and graphic in its depiction of violence and human sexuality, the novel created a scandal in England soon after its publication, and caused its author, then a member of the House of Commons, to be branded licentious and perverse. Extravagant and melodramatic in style, the work details the exploits of Ambrosio, a wayward monk whose excessive pride and vanity lead to murder, a pact with Satan, and his eternal damnation. The Monk is said to be composed from a variety of sources, many of them German, while its main plot comes from the story of Santon Barisa, which appeared in The Guardian in 1713. Lewis acknowledged his debts on many of these accounts, partially to divert possible charges of plagiarism, and included in his novel several pieces of original and translated verse, including the ballad "Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogen." Although this and other poems are largely overlooked by modern scholars, The Monk is generally considered Lewis's masterpiece and one of the most fully realized visions of Gothic horror.The first edition sold well, and a second edition was published in October of 1796. The good sales and reviews of the first had emboldened Lewis, and he signed the new edition with his full name, adding “M.P.” to reflect his newly acquired seat in the House of Commons. The book continued to rise in popularity, but in February 1797 review by a writer for the European Magazine, the novel was criticized for “plagiarism, immorality, and wild extravagance.
The Monk is one of the more lurid and of Gothic novels. It is also the first book to feature a priest as the villain.
Plot: The story concerns Ambrosio - a pious, well-respected monk in Spain - and his violent downfall. He is undone by carnal lust for his pupil, a woman disguised as a monk (Matilda), who tempts him to transgress, and, once satisfied by her, is overcome with desire for the innocent Antonia. Using magic spells, Matilda aids him in seducing Antonia, whom he later rapes and kills. Matilda is eventually revealed as an instrument of Satan in female form, who has orchestrated Ambrosio's downfall from the start. In the middle of telling this story Lewis frequently makes further digressions, which serve to heighten the Gothic atmosphere of the tale while doing little to move along the main plot. A lengthy story about a "Bleeding Nun" is told, and many incidental verses are introduced. A second romance, between Lorenzo and Antonia, also gives way to a tale of Lorenzo's sister being tortured by hypocritical nuns (as a result of a third romantic plot). Eventually, the story catches back up with Ambrosio, and in several pages of impassioned prose, Ambrosio is delivered into the hands of the Inquisition; he escapes by selling his soul to the devil for his deliverance from the death sentence which awaits him. The story ends with the devil preventing Ambrosio's attempted final repentance, and the sinful monk's prolonged torturous death. Ambrosio finds out by the devil that the woman that he had raped and killed, Antonia, was indeed his sister.
Review: Featuring demonic pacts, rape, incest, and such props as the Wandering Jew, ruined castles, and the Spanish Inquisition, The Monk serves more or less as a compendium of Gothic taste. Ambrosio, the hypocrite foiled by his own lust, and his sexual misconduct inside the walls of convents and monasteries, is a vividly portrayed villain, as well as an embodiment of much of the traditional English mistrust of Roman Catholicism, with its intrusive confessional, its political and religious authoritarianism, and its cloistered lifestyles.
The Monk is about veiling and disguise and it is possible to read into the novel a possible expression of the “open secret” of Lewis’s homosexuality through the characters of Ambrosio, Rosario/Matilda, and Lucifer. In the end, Ambrosio’s desires are insatiable... But Ambrosio’s desire may be insatiable because it is denied its true object. The closest the text gets to disclosing what this object might be is an elaborately staged event which obfuscates as it reveals. In the centre of the text, in quick succession, Matilda performs two acts of conjuration. In the first, Antonia’s coy, modest, naked body is displayed before Ambrosio in Matilda’s magic mirror. In the second, in labyrinthine caverns beneath the monastery, Matilda invokes an androgynous, decidedly camp ‘Daemon’: ‘a Youth seemingly scarce eighteen, the perfection of whose form and face was unrivalled’. The ‘beautiful’ figure, ‘perfectly naked’, with ‘silken locks’ and surrounded by ‘clouds of rose-coloured lights’, appears as the key to Ambrosio’s possession of Antonia. The figure, at Matilda’s strident behest finally relinquishes the ‘myrtle’ which will enable Antonia’s seduction. The parallelism of the stagin raises the question of causation: is the Daemon the key to the sexual possession of Antonia, or is Antonia’s image a screen for Ambrosio’s true object of desire, the epicene devil?”
Scholars observe that the thematic character of The Monk departs somewhat from that of the traditional Gothic novel. And while it favors the evocation of grotesque horror rather than the rendering of a sentimental theme of justice based upon divine Providence, Lewis's novel nevertheless presents a critique of human vice and explores the conflict between religion and human sexuality. This conflict is dramatized in the character of Ambrosio through the juxtaposition of the monk's pride and destructive sexual appetite with the innocent virtue of Antonia and the forthrightness of Lorenzo. Many commentators note, however, that the dullness of the novel's virtuous characters fails to match the depth and complexity of Ambrosio and Matilda, and instead locate evidence of the novel's primary theme in the psychological exploration of its fallen protagonist and his accomplice. Likewise, many have observed that Matilda's strong will and intelligence make her far more compelling than her counterpart Antonia, despite her manipulative behavior and demonic nature. Others have commented on Lewis's attempts to establish an unsettling parallel between the violence of the riotous mob in his novel and that of the French Revolution, or on his deft integration of legends and folk tales, such as those of the Bleeding Nun and the Wandering Jew, in order to illicit terror and add universal appeal to his story.
Opening Line: “Scarcely had the Abbey Bell tolled for five minutes, and already was the Church of the Capuchins thronged with Auditors.”
Closing Line: “They reached the spot where Ambrosio lay, and when they abated carried with them into the river the Corse of the despairing Monk.”
Quotes: “His unsatisfied Desires placed before him the most lustful and provoking Images, and he rioted in joys till then unknown to him.”
“Wild and desperate, She threw herself upon the ground, beating her bosom and rending her veil in all the delirium of despair.”
Rating: Very Good.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

375. Jacob’s Room – Virginia Woolf

History: This book was published in 1922. The novel centres, in a very ambiguous way, around the life story of the protagonist Jacob Flanders, and is presented entirely by the impressions other characters have of Jacob. The book is primarily a character study and has little in the way of plot or background, the narrative is constructed as a void in place of the central character. Motifs of emptiness and absence haunt the novel and establish its elegiac feel. Jacob is described to us, but in such indirect terms that it would seem better to view him as an amalgamation of the different perceptions of the characters and narrator. He does not exist as a concrete reality, but rather as a collection of memories and sensations.
Plot: Set in pre-war England, the novel begins in Jacob's childhood and follows him through college at Cambridge, and then into adulthood. The story is told mainly through the perspectives of the women in Jacob's life, including the repressed upper-middle-class Clara Durrant and the uninhibited young art student Florinda, with whom he has an affair. His time in London forms a large part of the story, though towards the end of the novel he travels to Italy, then Greece. Jacob eventually dies in the war and in lieu of a description of the death scene, Woolf describes the empty room that he leaves behind.
Review: We follow the life of a promising young man through glimpses of him given by female friends and relatives. From childhood to youth and manhood, we watch Jacob grow and mature in the eyes of the women in his life. When World War I breaks out, Jacob goes away to war and the women who love him must stay behind, trying to hold on to their memories of him. This is a haunting story about hope and tragedy in a time of devastating conflict.
Opening Line: “So of course,” wrote Betty Flanders, pressing her heels rather deeper into the sand, “There was nothing for it but to leave.”
Closing Line: “She held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.”
Quotes: “Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title.”
“In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.”
Rating: Very Good.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

374. Miss Lonelyhearts – Nathanael West

History: This book was published in 1933. The general theme of the novel is one of extreme disillusionment with Depression-era American society, a consistent theme throughout West's novels. However, the novel is a black comedy, characterized by an extremely dark sense of humor and irony.
The novel can be treated as a meditation on the theme of theodicy, or the problem of why evil exists in the world. The novel's protagonist is psychologically and "spiritually" overwhelmed by his perception of Evil. He then tries different approaches to tackle this question (religion, logic, love, existentialism) but they are all ultimately proven inadequate.
Although the characters of Miss Lonelyhearts are grotesque caricatures, the periodic letters sent to Miss Lonelyhearts, which describe real people with real insoluble problems, serve to ground the novel's Expressionism in reality.
Many of the problems described in Miss Lonelyhearts describe actual economic conditions in New York City during the Great Depression, although the novel carefully avoids questions of national politics. Moreover, the novel is particularly important due to its existential import. The characters seem to be living in an amoral world. Hence, they resort to heavy drinking, sex, and parties. Miss Lonelyhearts has a "Christ complex", which stands for his belief in religion as a solution to a world devoid of values. However, he approaches the status of an absurd hero insofar as his religious convictions further his depression and disillusionment. Ironically, he is shot at the moment he thinks he has had a religious conversion.
Plot: In the story, Miss Lonelyhearts is an unnamed male newspaper columnist writing an advice column which is seen by the newspaper staff as a joke. As "Miss Lonelyhearts" reads letters from desperate New Yorkers, he feels terribly burdened and falls into a cycle of deep depression, accompanied by heavy drinking and occasional barfights. He is also the victim of the pranks and cynical advice of his feature editor at the newspaper, "Shrike" (a type of predatory bird).
Miss Lonelyhearts tries several approaches to escape the terribly painful letters he has to read through religion, trips to the countryside with his fiancee Betty, and sex with Shrike's wife and Mrs. Doyle, a reader of his column. However, the Miss Lonelyhearts efforts seem to sink him more and more into a "dismal swamp of despair." After his sexual encounter with Mrs. Doyle, he is invited to dine at the Doyles' and ends up beating her up in an effort to fend off her sexual advances.
In the last scene, Mr. Doyle hides a gun inside a rolled newspaper and decides to take revenge on Miss Lonelyhearts. Miss Lonelyhearts, in turn, is in the grips of what he understands to be a religious enlightenment (but which seems like religious mania), and he simply runs toward his doom. Mr. Doyle shoots Miss Lonelyhearts, and the two men roll down a flight of stairs together. It is implied, but not stated outright, that Miss Lonelyhearts dies in this encounter.
Review: Miss Lonelyhearts receives hundreds of letters every week--it's his job to respond to them for his newspaper column. At first, he took the job because it seemed easy and the other newspapermen treated it like a joke, but now he finds that the letters, which detail an amazing panorama of human misery, are haunting him and pushing him to the brink of an existential breakdown. To make matters worse, he is hounded by his editor, Shrike, who torments him with elaborate jokes at the expense of his religiosity and inner turmoil. "The Miss Lonelyhearts," says shrikes, "are the priests of America," but Miss Lonelyhearts is a priest who lacks any answers to the question of why evil exists in the world. Miss Lonelyhearts looks to art, love, sex, and religion to temper his misery, but finds that he cannot escape the horrible emptiness of the letters.This is a brief but savage attack on the emptiness of modern life. Nathanael West here addresses the central dilemma facing modern man; having abandoned God, where do people turn for answers?
Opening Line: “Miss Lonelyhearts, help me, help me.”
Closing Line: “They both rolled, part of the way down the stairs.”
Quotes: "He crushed its head with a stone and left the carcass to the flies that swarmed around the bloody flowers."
"He had learned not to laugh at the advertisements offering to teach writing, cartooning, engineering, to add inches to the biceps and to develop the bust."
Rating: Good but depressing.

Friday, November 19, 2010

373. The Quiet American – Graham Greene

History: This book was first published in Great Britain in 1955. The book draws on Greene's experiences as a SIS agent spying for Britain in World War II in Sierra Leone in the early 1940s and on winters spent from 1951 to 1954 in Saigon reporting on the French colonial war for The Times and Le Figaro. He was apparently inspired to write The Quiet American in October 1951 while driving back to Saigon from the Ben Tre province. He was accompanied by an American aid worker who lectured him about finding a “third force in Vietnam”. Greene spent three years writing it.
After its publication in the U.S. in 1956, the novel was widely condemned as anti-American. It was criticized by The New Yorker for portraying Americans as murderers, largely based on one scene in which a bomb explodes in a crowd of people.
Plot: Thomas Fowler is a British journalist in his fifties who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for over two years. He meets a young American idealist named Alden Pyle, who lives his life and forms his opinions based on the books written by York Harding, whom Pyle has met twice in his life. Harding's theory is that neither Communism nor colonialism are the answer in foreign lands like Vietnam, but rather a "Third Force," usually a combination of traditions, works best. Pyle is thoughtful and soft-spoken; Fowler finds him naïve.
The two men meet accidentally at the Continental, a popular Saigon hotel. Pyle dances with Fowler's live-in lover, Phuong. Only twenty years old, Phuong is considered the most beautiful girl in Saigon. Her sister's goal in life is to marry Phuong off to a rich American; she does not like Fowler because he is married. Fowler and Pyle meet again at the Continental. Some vulgar Americans and British who have been drinking too much go off to the House of Five Hundred Women. Pyle goes with them, but Fowler rescues him. Later that night Pyle seems protective of Phuong.
Fowler goes to the city of Phat Diem to cover a battle there. Pyle travels there to tell him that he has been in love with Phuong since the first night he saw her, and that he wants to marry her. They make a toast to nothing and Pyle leaves the next day. Fowler gets a letter from Pyle thanking him for being so nice about Phuong. The letter is annoying because of Pyle's complete confidence that Phuong will choose to marry him. Meanwhile, Fowler's editor wants him to transfer back to England.
Pyle comes to Fowler's place and they ask her to choose between them. She chooses Fowler, her lover of two years. She does not know that he is up for a transfer. Fowler writes his wife to ask for a divorce in front of Phuong.
Fowler and Pyle meet again in a war zone. They end up captive in a tower, and spend an extraordinary night talking about everything from sex to God. As they escape, Pyle saves Fowler's life. Fowler goes back to Saigon where he lies to Phuong that his wife will divorce him. Pyle exposes the lie and Phuong moves in with Pyle. After receiving a letter from Fowler, his editor decides that he can stay in Indo-China for at least another year. Fowler investigates Pyle's activities more closely and finds out that Pyle is importing military supplies into Vietnam from the United States. Fowler goes into the war zone and does some serious reporting.
When Fowler returns to Saigon, he goes to Pyle's office to confront him but Pyle is out. Pyle comes over later for drinks and they talk about his upcoming marriage to Phuong. Later that week there is a terrible explosion and many innocents are killed. Fowler puts the pieces together and realizes that Pyle is behind the bombing. Fowler decides that Pyle must be eliminated. His naive theories and interference are causing innocent people to die. Fowler takes part in a murder plot against Pyle. Although the police believe that Fowler is involved, they cannot prove anything. Phuong goes back to Fowler as if nothing had ever happened. In the last chapter Fowler receives a telegram from his wife. She says that she has changed her mind and that she will start divorce proceedings.
Review: This book stands as the definitive, though fictionalized account of the terrible confrontation between moral dissipation and dangerous naivete that plagued Vietnam for so many decades. Though written in 1955, is still a biting indictment of American foreign policy.
Pyle is the stereotypical American terrorist. Pyle doesn't see the harm in doing what he thinks has to be done. When the terrorist bombings he was behind don't kill their intended targets, but instead women and children, yet are blamed on the Communists he considers it a success. The target enemy parade was cancelled, and the standard everyday business of the public square took place. Aside from warning any Americans he saw (and his and Fowler's mistress Phuong) to stay away from the area, Pyle did nothing and didn't even seem to be particularly affected by the deaths of the Vietnamese civilians. Pyle is also a real character, and Fowler, himself, isn't exactly perfect. Fowler doesn't particularly care about Vietnam either and has no particular politics -- and is a bit of a cynical, egotistical jerk. The fact that Fowler isn't a perfect being of light exposing the terrible American makes the novel compelling and makes Greene's points go down a bit easier.
The unreality of war--the emotional distance between military and civilian is captured by this theme of innocence. Actions performed without regard to effect show the lack of understanding. Chilling imagery is conjured by Greene’s sparse writing style. A metaphoric depiction of bodies strewn in a ditch as an irish stew haunts the reader. It represents a hodgepodge cross-section of society who have unwittingly become part of bloodshed. The love relationship between Phuong and the two journalists highlights the impact of French colonialism and the reality that no matter how impartial Fowler seeks to be, neutrality is unattainable where human emotion is involved.
The prescient pessimism that pervades this book is it's most interesting feature. Greene, writing well before we really got involved, seemed to sense that Vietnam was a tar baby that we idealistic Americans would not be able to resist embracing. Pyle's bloody blundering seems to presage the well-intended but disastrous mess that we would make of the entire country in the decades to come.
Opening Line: “After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinet; he had said, ‘I’ll be with you at latest by ten,’ and when midnight struck I couldn’t stay quiet any longer and went down into the street.”
Closing Line: “Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.”
Quotes: "'...I had better look after Pyle.' That was my first instinct to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection, when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world meaning no harm."
"I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings."
Rating: Very Good.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

372. Midnight’s Children – Salmon Rushdie

History: This book was published in 1981 and won the Booker Prize, Great Britain's equivalent of the U.S. Pulitzer Prize; in 1993, the novel was awarded the "Booker of Bookers," a honor accorded to the best novel to be published in the competition's first twenty-five years. In 1984 Indira Gandhi brought an action against the book in the British courts, claiming to have been defamed by a single sentence in chapter 28, penultimate paragraph, in which her son Sanjay Gandhi is said to have had a hold over his mother by him accusing her of contributing to his father's death through her neglect. The case was settled out of court when Salman Rushdie agreed to remove the offending sentence.
In the late 1990s the BBC was planning to film a five-part miniseries of the novel with Rahul Bose in the lead, but due to pressure from the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, the filming permit was revoked and the project was cancelled
Plot: Midnight's Children is a loose allegory for events in India both before and, primarily, after the independence and partition of India, which took place at midnight on 15 August 1947. The protagonist and narrator of the story is Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment when India becomes an independent country and has telepathic powers, as well as an enormous and constantly dripping nose. The novel is divided into three books.
Midnight's Children tells the story of the Sinai family and the earlier events leading up to India's Independence and Partition, connecting the two lines both literally and allegorically. Saleem Sinai, an obscure thirty-year-old pickle factory worker who writes the fantastic story of his life each night, reading it aloud each night and having it commented on by a doting woman named Padma. He is born at the exact moment that India becomes independent. He later discovers that all children born in India between 12 AM and 1 AM on 15 August 1947, are imbued with special powers. Saleem thus attempts to use these powers to convene the eponymous children. The convention, or Midnight Children's Conference, is in many ways reflective of the issues India faced in its early statehood concerning the cultural, linguistic, religious, and political differences faced by such a vastly diverse nation. Saleem acts as a telepathic conduit, bringing hundreds of geographically disparate children into contact while also attempting to discover the meaning of their gifts. In particular, those children born closest to the stroke of midnight wield more powerful gifts than the others. Shiva of the Knees, Saleem's evil nemesis, and Parvati, called "Parvati-the-witch," are two of these children with notable gifts and roles in Saleem's story.
Meanwhile, Saleem must also contend with his personal trajectory. His family is active in this, as they begin a number of migrations and endure the numerous wars which plague the subcontinent. During this period he also suffers amnesia until he enters a quasi-mythological exile in the jungle of Sundarban, where he is re-endowed with his memory. In doing so, he reconnects with his childhood friends. Saleem later becomes involved with the Indira Gandhi - proclaimed Emergency and her son Sanjay's "cleansing" of the Jama Masjid slum. For a time Saleem is held as a political prisoner; these passages contain scathing criticisms of Indira Gandhi's overreach during the Emergency as well as what Rushdie seems to see as a personal lust for power bordering on godhood. The Emergency signals the end of the potency of the Midnight Children, and there is little left for Saleem to do but pick up the few pieces of his life he may still find and write the chronicle that encompasses both his personal history and that of his still-young nation; a chronicle written for his son, who, like his father, is both chained and supernaturally endowed by history.
Review: Despite light moments, Midnight’s Children is not a light read. I really struggled to finish this book – and my feelings about it are mixed. Rushdie’s prose is full of symbolism, analogies, magical realism and the complex history of India. The book has multiple themes (the individual vs. the masses and destruction vs. creation to name two). It is also full of numerous characters – some minor, some major and everything in between.
Midnight’s Children is indeed full of meaning. And symbols. Symbols cut out of a perforated, blood-stained sheet. A sheet through which Aadam Aziz examined the patient which would one day be his wife. A sheet which would one day be used as a Halloween costume of a ghost, the symbol of walking death. A sheet that can even hide truth, as the sheet which cloaked the Brass Monkey, alias the Voice of Pakistan, a beautiful voice that did not speak of inner realities. A sheet stained in blood – is Rushdie symbolizing the nations of India (nations, for there are three, not one) that were bloodily cut out of a large, blanketing empire?
The story was planned. Created. The fact that Shiva was named Shiva was no coincidence. That Parvati the witch was named Parvati. And that their offspring had the ears of an elephant, a human Ganesh. (I certainly hope you’ve read the book, and that I’m not giving anything away.) This is all transparent to anyone of even a cursory background of Hinduism.
Rushdie has an imperative to show the reader that he is well-versed and well-read. " the buzzing in my left, or sinister, ear" (201). Yes, Rushdie knows a bit of Greek, for sinister is indeed the Greek word for left. Is there something sinister about what happened to Saleem’s left ear? What is Rushdie trying to tell us? Or is he merely telling us that (and what) he can tell?
For it all fits together almost perfectly. The Widow and her black and white hair. Drainings above and below, causing a dryness that leads to cracking. Do we really need anyone to tell us that the children of midnight represent the birth of a multitude of ideas of freedom, a land full of dreams – in short, a new nation that has, as many before it, caught the optimism bug. And of the ones who want to exterminate this bug once and for all.
Rushdie can take any sentence, any word, and dive into its definition, constructing links, making analogies, playing with meanings. Rushdie masterfully has every number and statistic in place – in place and ready, a skeleton ready for a body, and Rushdie readily provides the body. The allusions and plays on words are everywhere.
Opening Line: “I was born in the city of Bombay, once upon a time.. no that won’t do.”
Closing Line: “Yes, they will trample me underfoot, they will trample my son who is not my son, and his son who will not be his, and his who will not be his, until the thousand and first generation, until thousand and one midnights have bestowed their terrible gifts and a thousand and one children have died, because it is the privilege an the curse of midnight's children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.
Quotes: “Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, , of everything done-to-me.”
“One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, theur smell may be overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth….that they are despite everything, acts of love.”
Rating: Masterpiece. Important but typically boastful

Monday, November 15, 2010

371. Group Portrait with Lady – Heinrich Boll

History: This book was published in 1971 as Gruppenbild mit Dame. A sweeping portrayal of German life from World War I until the early 1970s, the novel was cited by the Nobel Prize committee when it awarded Boll the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972.. Group Portrait with Lady was an instant success in Germany, holding the top spot on the bestseller list for several months. It was singled out in the laudation accompanying the Nobel Prize. However, it almost goes without saying that Boll would certainly not have received the award on the strength of this novel alone.
Plot: The story's anonymous narrator gradually reveals the life--past and present--of Leni Pfeiffer, a war widow who, with her neighbors, is fighting the demolition of the Cologne apartment building in which they reside. Leni and her illegitimate son Lev become the nexus of Cologne's counterculture; they spurn the prevailing work ethic and assail the dehumanization of life under capitalism. In a larger sense, the work attempts both a reconciliation with the past and a condemnation of the pursuit of affluence in present-day Germany.
Review: Similar in context to most of his mature fiction, the novel reiterates Boll's major thematic concerns and reaffirms his moral chastisement of modern Germany. Written in the mode of documentary, Group Portrait with Lady is elaborately devised as an investigative study undertaken by an ostensibly objective narrator, referred to in the novel as the author or "The Au." The subject for examination is Leni Pfeiffer, nee Gruyten, the celebrated "Lady" of the novel's title. Developed through a series of interviews with numerous individuals having some familiarity, connection, or past association with the narrator's subject, the novel is at once an in-depth character portrayal as well as a social history of Germany.
This is a piece of music composed by Heinrich Boll which at the beginning sounds non-harmonic and confusing and as the story continues it turns into a magnificant symphony of rhythms and melodies; in fact a death march for the Third Reich era. Heinrich Boll takes us to the Nazi Germany era and lets us see the world through the life of an interesting woman, a very normal human being who is actually too normal for those abnormal days of war and savage.
Opening Line: “The female protagonist in the first section is a woman of forty eight, German: she is five foot six inches tall, weighs 133 pounds (in indoor clothing), i.e., only twelve to fourteen ounces below standard weight; her eyes are iridescent dark blue and black, her slightly graying hair, very thick and blond, hangs loosely to her shoulders, sheathing her head like a helmet.”
Closing Line: “Well, there remain the “still unexplained reflections,” there also remain some dark thunderclouds of foreboding in the background: Mehmets’s jealousy, and his recently announced aversion to ballroom dancing.”
Quotes: “I’m an old maid and I’ve never had nay direct experience with men, but I’ve observed them pretty closely, you know, and I ask you, what must it be like when a man turns up with his return ticket in his pocket and is always thinking of the timetable and the barracks gate he has to go through before a certain hour, or the remustering depot?”
Rating: Okay

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

370. Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller

History: The book was first published in 1934 by the Obelisk Press in Paris, France. Its publication in 1961 in the United States by Grove Press led to an obscenity trial that was one of several that tested American laws on pornography in the 1960s. While famous for its frank and often graphic depictions of sex, the book is also widely regarded as an important masterpiece of 20th century literature.
Plot: Set in France (primarily Paris) during the 1930s, it is the tale of Miller's life as a struggling writer. Combining fiction and autobiography, some chapters follow a strict narrative and refer to Miller's actual friends, colleagues, and workplaces; others are written as stream-of-consciousness reflections. It is written in the first person, as are many of Miller's other novels, and often fluctuates between past and present tense. There are many passages explicitly describing the narrator's sexual encounters.
Tropic of Cancer begins with the narrator describing his companions, whom he depicts as bohemian aesthetes living in varying degrees of squalor. He disdains Moldorf as a "word-drunk" poetaster and dismisses Van Norden and Sylvester as failed writers, reserving his praise for Boris and Carl, who are "mad and tone deaf … sufferers." The protagonist also sings paeans to the sex organs of Tania and Llona, describes his love of prostitutes, Parisian vistas, and food, and relates his methods for cadging meals from his wealthier friends. Interspersed among these thoughts are statements that reject the conventional standards of literature and art for the spontaneous stream of consciousness which eludes artistic representation. In a conversation with Van Norden, and in watching him make love to an impoverished prostitute, the narrator realizes that his companion's understanding of sex and women is adolescent, reductive, and mechanical. On visiting an art gallery to view the paintings of Henri Matisse, the narrator expresses admiration for the vivacity and transformative power of the artist's work and recognizes a dramatic contrast between Matisse's vision and the lifeless materialism of Van Norden and Carl. After failing to seduce Tania, the narrator tries to alleviate his depression through drinking and brawling. He meets Fillmore, another neurotic American expatriate, whose attitude toward women is as degenerate as Van Norden's. Towards the end of the novel, the narrator travels to Dijon where he makes a cursory attempt at teaching a course in English. Upon his return, he accompanies a despondent and spiteful Fillmore to the train station before the latter departs for America. Pathetic in the naivete of his deflated idealism, Fillmore's whiny tirade against France allows the narrator to comprehend his own resilience in the "cancerous" environment of Paris.
Review: Tropic of Cancer (1934), Miller's most famous and acclaimed work, is a lyrical, profane, and surreal portrait of the author's experiences in the bohemian underworld of 1930s Paris. The novel was a personal and artistic break-through for Miller, who was an obscure and impoverished writer when it was first published. The theme of sexual and artistic liberation, which pervades Tropic of Cancer, manifests itself in its Whitmanesque poetic embrace of sexuality, its open disdain for the constraints of bourgeois society, and its declarations of antagonism toward the conventions of the modern novel. At one point Miller writes: "This is not a book … this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art…." While some critics have dismissed Tropic of Cancer as a merely autobiographical rant which is reckless and nihilistic in its abandonment of literary conventions, others have recognized Miller's notoriously liberal use of profanity and sexual description as an attempt to broaden the expressive means of the novel. The unusually polemical and partisan tenor of much early criticism on Miller's novel should be considered against the background of its publication history. Before Grove Press won its censorship struggle in the early 1960s, Tropic of Cancer was ruled obscene and its sale was banned in the United States and England.
Opening Line: ““I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.”
Closing Line: “It’s course is fixed.”
Quotes: “I sometimes ask myself how it happens that I attract nothing but crackbrained individuals, neurasthenics, neurotics, psychopaths, - and Jews especially.”
Rating: It was awful.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

369. The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow

History: Published in 1953, it centers on the eponymous character who grows up during the Great Depression. This picaresque novel is an example of bildungsroman, tracing the development of an individual through a series of encounters, occupations and relationships from boyhood to manhood.
Plot: The story describes Augie March's growth from childhood to a fairly stable maturity. Augie, with his brother Simon and the mentally abnormal George have no father and are brought up by their mother who is losing her eyesight, and a tyrannical grandmother in very humble circumstances in the rough parts of Chicago. Augie drifts from one situation to another in a free-wheeling manner—jobs, women, homes, education and lifestyle.
Augie March's path seems to be partly self made and partly comes around through chance. In lifestyle he ranges from near adoption by a wealthy couple who spoil him, to a struggle for existence stealing books and helping out friends in desperate straits. His most unusual adventure is his flight to Mexico with the wild and irrepressible Thea who tries to catch lizards with an eagle. Thea attempts to convince Augie to join her in this seemingly impossible task.
His jobs include general assistance to the slightly corrupt Einhorn, helping in a dog training parlour, working for his brother at a coal-tip, and working for the Congress of Industrial Organizations until finally he joins the merchant navy in the war.
Augie attracts and gets involved with a string of different women. Firstly a casual acquaintance as a youth, he gets engaged to a wealthy cousin of his brother's wife. However through a scandal not of his fault, he is discarded. After a casual affair with the Greek hotel maid he is swept off by Thea whom he had met when living with the rich Renlings and who forecast their relationship even though he loved her sister. After the fiasco in Mexico where he suffered a terrible accident on a horse, he and Thea began drifting apart; him spending his time playing cards and her hunting for snakes and lizards in the mountains. Their inevitable split came the night he met Stella and agreed to drive her to another town to escape her troubled boyfriend. After the break-up, Augie returned to Chicago and picked back up with the Greek Hotel maid until joining the merchant navy and heading to New York. There he met up with Stella again and married her.
All through the book, Augie is encouraged into education, but never quite seems to make it; he reads a great deal for himself and develops quite a philosophy of life. Something or somebody tends to crop up turning his path before Augie seriously considers returning to education.
During the war, his ship is sunk and he suffers a difficult episode alone in a lifeboat with what turns out to be a lunatic. After rescue he returns to Stella and the book ends with them living a slightly dubious existence in France, he involved in some fairly shady business deals and she attempting to pursue a career in acting.
Review: In some ways, The Adventures of Augie March is seen as a dispelling of the traditional idea of an American hero. He is "the American chasing after self-exploration."With an intricate plot and allusive style, Bellow explores contrasting themes of alienation and belonging, poverty and wealth, love and loss often with comic undertones. In writing a long, crowded picaresque narrative of ups and downs of fortune, letting the hero tell his own life history in the first person, Mr. Bellow goes back to the earliest and most generic form of the novel. It is a form which has always been congenial to observant humorists who relish human variety, who are fertile in creating characters and who are not afraid to seem more interested in life than in art. If anything, Mr. Bellow is too lavish with adventures, though most of them are marvelously convincing. Augie goes through more intensities of experience than Defoe’s Colonel Jack and Smollett’s Roderick Random put together. And having been for a time to the University of Chicago, he muses on his experience in historical and philosophical terms which make those earlier heroes seem very simple-minded indeed.
Opening Line: "I am an American, Chicago born - Chicago that somber city - and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent."
Closing Line: "Columbus too thought he was a flop, when they took him back in chains, which didn't prove there was no America.
Quotes: “You want people to pour love on you, and you soak it up and swallow it. You can’t get enough. And when another woman runs after you, you’ll go with her. You’re so happy when somebody begs you to oblige. You can’t stand up under flattery.”
"The lesson of an American life like my father's... is that achievements are compatible with decency.”
Rating: Very Good.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

368. Silk – Alessandro Baricco

History: Published in 1996, it was translated into English in 1997.
Plot: The novel tells the story of a French silkworm merchant-turned-smuggler named Hervé Joncour in 19th century France who travels to Japan for his town's supply of silkworms. In 1861, the journey to obtain silk was a treacherous one. Due to an epidemic that infected most of the European stocks of silk worms the men who buy the eggs of the worms were forced to travel further from home to replenish their stock.
Hervé Joncour is a buyer and seller of silk worm eggs for the silk mills in the French city of Lavillediea. Every year his travels take him away from home to Egypt and other African ports to buy the stock of his trade. Because of the epidemic, he is forced to undertake a dangerous and desperate journey over half the known world to buy healthy eggs from Japan. It is a dangerous and desperate trip. Travel, since the Suez Canal has not been completed, takes months to get to Japan from France. Once there, Joncour is smuggled into the country as Japan’s ports are not yet open to foreigners. The price he will pay if caught taking silk worm eggs out of Japan is his death.
There he meets a woman, the mistress of his host. They do not touch, they do not speak to each other, and he can not read the letter that she gives him. Once Joncour hears what it says, “Please return or I will die”, he becomes a man possessed. When in France with his wife Helené, Joncour is a man changed by the Orient. While in Japan he is trying to find ways to meet his host’s mistress without raising the suspicions of the townsfolk, and their lord. Over the course of several years, and several visits to Japan, he establishes some contact, but she never speaks to him. In the end, after the last visit to Japan in which he finds the village in ruins from war, the baron, Hara Kei, holds him at gun point, tells him to go home. His wife, Helene, tricks him with an erotic letter that he thinks is from the Japanese woman, but it really isn’t. Helene dies, and he continues to make a fortune from the silk worm trade.
Review: Silk is an enthralling love story. It is haunting in it’s telling of two star crossed lovers fated to meet but never to act upon their love. It is told with simplicity and a moving plot that transports its readers to France in the late nineteenth century.
Opening Line: “Although his father had pictured him for a brilliant career in the army, Herve Joncour had ended up earning his crust in an unusual career which, by a singular piece of irony, was not unconnected with a charming side that bestowed on it a vaguely feminine intonation.”
Closing Line: “Occasionally, on windy days, he would go down to the lake and spend hours in contemplation of it because he seemed to descry, sketched out on the water, the inexplicable sight of his life as it had been, in all its lightness.”
Quotes: “His life was as rain before his eyes, a vision of piece.”
Rating: Good.

367. Ficciones - Jorge Luis Borges

History: Ficciones the most popular anthology of short stories by Borges. In 1944 the anthology Ficciones is published, including the 1941 volume as its first half.
Part One: The Garden of Forking Paths -
"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940) - the story was first published in the Argentine journal Sur, May 1940. The "postscript" dated 1947 is intended to be anachronistic, set seven years in the future. The first English-language translation of the story was published in 1961.
In the story, an encyclopedia article about a mysterious country called Uqbar is the first indication of Orbis Tertius, a massive conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world known as Tlön. One of the major themes of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is that ideas ultimately manifest themselves in the physical world and the story is generally viewed as a parabolic discussion of Berkeleian idealism — and to some degree as a protest against totalitarianism.
In the course of the story, the narrator encounters increasingly substantive artifacts of Orbis Tertius and of Tlön; by the end of the story, Earth is becoming Tlön.
The story unfolds as a first-person narrative by a fictive version of Borges himself. Events and facts are revealed roughly in the order that the narrator becomes aware of them, or becomes aware of their relevance. The bulk of the story is from the point of view of 1940, the year the story was written and published. A postscript is from the point of view of the same narrator, anachronistically writing in 1947. The timing of events in Borges's first-person story is approximately from 1935 to 1947; the plot concerns events going back as far as the early 17th century and culminating in 1947.
In the story, Uqbar initially appears to be an obscure region of Iraq or of Asia Minor. In casual conversation with Borges, Bioy Casares recalls that a heresiarch (leader of a heretical sect) in Uqbar had declared that "mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men." Borges, impressed with the "memorable" sentence, asks for its source.
Bioy Casares refers him to an encyclopedia article on Uqbar in the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, described as "a literal if inadequate reprint of the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1902." It emerges that Uqbar is mentioned only in the closing pages of a single volume of the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, and that the pages describing Uqbar appear in some copies of the work, but not in others.
Borges, the narrator, is led through a bibliographical maze attempting to verify the reality or unreality of Uqbar. He is particularly drawn to a statement in the encyclopedia article that "…the literature of Uqbar… never referred to reality, but to the two imaginary regions of Mlejnas and Tlön."
A brief and naturalistic aside about Borges's father's friend Herbert Ashe leads to the story of Borges inheriting a much more substantial related artifact (one of several increasingly substantial and surprising artifacts that are to appear in the course of the story): the apparent eleventh volume of an encyclopedia devoted to Tlön. The volume has, in two places, "a blue oval stamp with the inscription: Orbis Tertius."
At this point, the story of Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius expands beyond the circle of Borges and his immediate friends and acquaintances, as scholars such as Ezequiel Martínez Estrada discuss whether this volume could have been written in isolation or whether it necessarily implies the existence of a complete encyclopedia about Tlön. The proposal emerges to attempt to reconstruct the entire history, culture, and even languages of that world.
This leads to an extended discussion of the languages, the philosophy and, in particular, the epistemology of Tlön, which forms the central focus of the story. Appropriately, the people of the imaginary Tlön — a fictional construct within a fictional story — hold an extreme form of Berkeleian idealism, denying the reality of the world. Their world is understood "not as a concurrence of objects in space, but as a heterogeneous series of independent acts." One of the imagined languages of Tlön lacks nouns. Its central units are "impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic suffixes or prefixes which have the force of adverbs." Borges lists a Tlönic equivalent of "The moon rose above the water": hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, meaning literally "Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned".
In a world where there are no nouns — or where nouns are composites of other parts of speech, created and discarded according to a whim — and no things, most of Western philosophy becomes impossible.
The narrator learns that as the society's work began, it became clear that a single generation wasn't sufficient to articulate the entire country of Uqbar. Each master therefore agreed to elect a disciple who would carry on his work and also perpetuate this hereditary arrangement. However, there was no further trace of this society until, two centuries later, one of its disciples was the fictional Ezra Buckley. Buckley was an eccentric Memphis, Tennessee millionaire who scoffed at the modest scale of the sect's undertaking. He proposed instead the invention of a planet, Tlön, with certain provisos: that the project be kept secret, that an encyclopedia of the imaginary planet of Tlön be written, and that the whole scheme "have no truck with that impostor Jesus Christ" (and therefore none with Berkeley's God). The date of Buckley's involvement is 1824. In the early 1940s — still in the future at the time Borges wrote the story — the Tlönic project has ceased to be a secret, and is beginning to disseminate its own universe. Beginning "about 1942", in what at first appears a magical turn, objects from Tlön begin to appear in the real world. While we are later led to see them as forgeries, they still must be the projects of a secret science and technology. Once the full, forty-volume First Encyclopaedia of Tlön is found in Memphis, the idea of Tlön begins unstoppably to take over and eradicate the existing cultures of the real world.
(As an aside, the eleventh volume of this full encyclopedia is not quite the same as the earlier, isolated eleventh volume: it lacks such "improbable features" as "the multiplying of the hrönir." "It is probable," writes Borges, "that these erasures were in keeping with the plan of projecting a world which would not be too incompatible with the real world." Material reality may be subject to reshaping by ideas, but apparently it is not entirely without resistance).
While the fictional Borges and his academic colleagues pursue their interesting speculations about the epistemology, language, and literature of Tlön, the rest of the world gradually learns about the project and begins to adopt the Tlönic culture, an extreme case of ideas affecting reality. In the epilogue set in 1947, Earth is in the process of becoming Tlön. The fictional Borges is appalled by this turn of events, an element in the story that critics Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Alastair Reid argue is to be read as a metaphor for the totalitarianism already sweeping across Europe at the time of the story's writing. As the story ends, Borges is focused on an obsession of his own: a translation of Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial into Spanish. Arguably it is no more important than Tlön, but it is at least of this world.
"The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim": It first appeared in 1936 in the book History of Eternity (Historia de la eternidad), and then was included in Ficciones, as an addition to part one. The story is a review of an imaginary work, The Conversation with the Man Called Al-Mu'tasim, which is the second (and inferior) edition of a book called The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim, by an Indian lawyer named Mir Bahadur Ali. Al-Mu'tasim means "he who goes in quest of aid."
The book that Borges "reviews" is essentially a detective story about a law student in Bombay. After unexpectedly committing a murder during a riot, he becomes an outcast among the lower classes of India. Through his dealings with people he infers the existence of a "perfect man", whom he calls Al-Mu'tasim. He believes Al-Mu'tasim has indirectly influenced other people for the better, through a number of intermediaries. The student becomes obsessed with finding and meeting Al-Mu'tasim.
"Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote": The story is written in the form of a review or literary critical piece about (the non-existent) Pierre Menard, a 20th century French writer. It begins with a brief introduction and a listing of all of Menard's work.
Borges' "review" describes Menard's efforts to go beyond a mere "translation" of Don Quixote by immersing himself so thoroughly in the work as to be able to actually "re-create" it, line for line, in the original 17th century Spanish. Thus, Pierre Menard is often used to raise questions and discussion about the nature of authorship and interpretation.
"The Circular Ruins" (original Spanish title: "Las Ruinas Circulares") is a fantasy short story. Published in el Sur in December 1940, It has an epigraph from Chapter 4 of Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll reading "And if he let off dreaming about you..." which refers to the passage in which Tweedledee points out the sleeping Red King to Alice, and claims she is simply a character in his dream. The short story deals with themes recurring in Borges's work: idealism, the manifestation of thoughts in the "real world", meaningful dreams, and immortality.
An experienced wizard retreats from the world to a location that possesses strong mystical powers: the circular ruins. There, the wizard tries to create another human being from his own dreams. Sleeping and dreaming longer and longer each day, the magician dreams of his young man becoming educated, and wiser. After time, though, the wizard can no longer find sleep, and he deems his first attempt an inevitable failure. After many sleepless nights, the wizard dreams of a heart; vaguely at first, but more and more clearly each night. Years pass and the wizard creates the boy piece by piece, in agonizing detail. The wizard calls upon the god Fire to bring his creation to life. Fire agrees, as long as the wizard accustoms his creation to the real world, and that only Fire and the wizard will be able to tell the creation from a real human. His creation is sent to a distant temple of the god Fire, and becomes famous as, because it is not real, it can walk through fire unharmed. The wizard hears of this, but at length he awakes to find the ruins ablaze. As he ultimately walks into the flaming house of Fire, the wizard notices that his skin does not burn. "With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another."
"The Babylon Lottery" (1941): The story describes a mythical Babylon in which all activities are dictated by an all-encompassing lottery, a metaphor for the role of chance in one's life. Initially, the lottery was run as a futuristic lottery would be with tickets purchased and the winner receiving an unspecified reward. Later, punishments and larger monetary rewards were introduced. Further, participation became mandatory for all but the elite. Finally, it simultaneously became so all-encompassing and so secret some whispered "the Company has never existed, and never will."
A further interpretation is that the Lottery and the Company that runs it are actually an allegory of a deity or Zeus. Like the workings of a deity in the eyes of men, the Company that runs the Lottery acts, apparently, at random and through means not known by its subjects, leaving men with two options: to accept it to be all-knowing and all-powerful but mysterious, or to deny its existence. Both theories have supporters in this allegory.
In many other books, Borges dealt with metaphysical questions about the meaning of life and the possible existence of higher authorities, and also presented this same paradoxical vision of a world that may be run by a good and wise deity but seems to lack any discernible meaning. This view may also be considered present in The Library of Babel, another Borges story.
Borges makes a brief reference to Franz Kafka as Qaphqa, the legendary Latrine where spies of the Company leave information.
"An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain" (1941): The "story" is simply a description of the literary works supposedly written between 1933 and 1939 by a deceased Irish author named Quain. The review of fictional books is a favorite device of Borges.
• The God of the Labyrinth (1933), a detective story in which the solution given is wrong, although this fact is not immediately obvious
• April March (1936), a novel with nine different beginnings, trifurcating backwards in time
• The Secret Mirror, a play in which the first act is the work of one of the characters in the second act
• Statements (1939), eight stories which are deliberately calculated to disappoint the reader; The Circular Ruins is supposedly an extract from the third story, "The Rose of Yesterday"
The piece is amazingly similar in tone and method to Vladimir Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, a full-length novel published in the same year, although the writers were then unaware of each others' existence.
"The Library of Babel" (1941): Borges's narrator describes how his universe consists of an endless expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains the bare necessities for human survival—and four walls of bookshelves. Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, the inhabitants believe that the books contain every possible ordering of just a few basic characters (letters, spaces and punctuation marks). Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The narrator notes that the library must contain all useful information, including predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages. Conversely, for many of the texts some language could be devised that would make it readable with any of a vast number of different contents.
Despite — indeed, because of — this glut of information, all books are totally useless to the reader, leaving the librarians in a state of suicidal despair. This leads some librarians to superstitions and cult-like behaviour, such as the "Purifiers", who arbitrarily destroy books they deem nonsense as they move through the library seeking the "Crimson Hexagon" and its illustrated, magical books. Another is the belief that since all books exist in the library, somewhere one of the books must be a perfect catalog of the library's contents; some even believe that a messianic figure known as the "Man of the Book" has read it, and they travel through the library seeking him.
"The Garden of Forking Paths" (1941): The story takes the form of a signed statement by a Chinese professor of English named Dr. Yu Tsun who is living in the United Kingdom during World War I. Tsun is a spy for the Germans, as he discloses in the first paragraph of his statement. As the story begins, Tsun realizes that the British officer pursuing him, Captain Richard Madden, is in the apartment of fellow spy Viktor Runeberg and has presumably either captured or killed him. Tsun surmises that his own arrest is next. He has discovered the location of a new British artillery park and wishes to convey that knowledge to his German masters before he is captured, and hits upon a desperate plan in order to achieve this.
In passing, Tsun states that his spying was not for the sake of Germany, which he considers "a barbarous country." Rather, he says, he did it because he wanted to prove to his German commander that an Asian man was intelligent enough to obtain for them the information they needed; as an Irishman in the employ of the English, Tsun suggests, Capt. Madden's dedication might be similarly motivated.
Taking his few possessions, Tsun boards a train to the village of Ashgrove, narrowly avoiding the pursuing Capt. Madden at the train station, and goes to the house of Dr. Stephen Albert. As he walks up the road to Albert's house, Tsun reflects on his great ancestor, Ts'ui Pên, a learned and famous man who renounced his job as governor of Yunnan in order to undertake two tasks: to write a vast and intricate novel, and to construct an equally vast and intricate labyrinth, one "in which all men would lose their way." Ts'ui Pên was murdered before completing his novel, however, and what he did write was a "contradictory jumble of irresolute drafts" that made no sense to subsequent reviewers; nor was the labyrinth ever found. Tsun describes his own experience of reading the unfinished novel. He arrives at the house of Dr. Albert, who himself has evidently been pondering the same topic. Albert explains excitedly that at one stroke he has solved both mysteries—the chaotic and jumbled nature of Ts'ui Pên's unfinished book, and the mystery of his lost labyrinth. Albert's solution is that they are one and the same: the book is the labyrinth.
Basing his work on the strange legend that Ts'ui Pên had intended to construct an infinite labyrinth, as well as a cryptic letter from Ts'ui Pên himself stating, "I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths", Albert realized that the "garden of forking paths" was the novel, and that the forking took place in time, not in space. As compared to most fictions, where the character chooses one alternative at each decision point and thereby eliminates all the others, Ts'ui Pên's novel attempted to describe a world where all possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously, each one itself leading to further proliferations of possibilities. Albert further explains that these constantly diverging paths do sometimes converge again, though as the result of a different chain of causes; for example, he says, in one possible time-line Dr. Tsun has come to his house as an enemy, in another as a friend.
Though trembling with gratitude at Albert's revelation and in awe of his ancestor's literary genius, Tsun glances up the path to see Capt. Madden approaching the house. He asks Albert to see Ts'ui Pên's letter again; Albert turns to retrieve it, and Tsun shoots him in the back, killing him instantly.
Although Tsun is arrested and sentenced to death, he claims to have "most abhorrently triumphed", as he has successfully communicated to the Germans the name of the city they were to attack, and indeed that city is bombed as Tsun goes on trial. The name of that city was Albert, and Tsun realized that the only way to convey that information was to kill a person of that name, so that the news of the murder would appear in British newspapers associated with his name.
Part Two: Artifices
"Funes the Memorious" (1942): tells the story of a fictional version of Borges himself as he meets Ireneo Funes, a teenage boy who lives in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, in 1884. Borges's cousin asks the boy for the time, and Funes replies instantly, without the aid of a watch and accurate to the minute.
Borges returns to Buenos Aires, then in 1887 comes back to Fray Bentos, intending to relax and study some Latin. He learns that Ireneo Funes has meanwhile suffered a horseback riding accident and is now hopelessly crippled. Soon enough, Borges receives a note from Funes, requesting that the visitor lend him some of his Latin books and a dictionary. Borges, disconcerted, sends Funes what he deems the most difficult works "in order fully to undeceive him".
Days later, Borges receives a telegram from Buenos Aires calling for his return due to his father's ill health. As he packs, he remembers the books and goes to Funes's house. Funes's mother escorts him to a patio where the youth usually spends his dark hours. As he enters, Borges is greeted by Funes's voice speaking perfect Latin, reciting "the first paragraph of the twenty-fourth chapter of the seventh book of the Historia Naturalis" (by Pliny the Elder).
Funes enumerates to Borges the cases of prodigious memory cited in the Historia Naturalis, and adds that he marvels that those are considered marvellous. He reveals that, since his fall from the horse, he perceives everything in full detail and remembers it all. He remembers, for example, the shape of clouds at all given moments, as well as the associated perceptions (muscular, thermal, etc.) of each moment. Funes has an immediate intuition of the mane of a horse or the form of a constantly changing flame that is comparable to our (normal people's) intuition of a simple geometric shape such as a triangle or square.
In order to pass the time, Funes has engaged in projects such as reconstructing a full day's worth of past memories (an effort which, he finds, takes him another full day), and constructing a "system of enumeration" that gives each number a different, arbitrary name. Borges correctly points out to him that this is precisely the opposite of a system of enumeration, but Funes is incapable of such understanding. A poor, ignorant young boy in the outskirts of a small town, he is hopelessly limited in his possibilities, but (says Borges) his absurd projects reveal "a certain stammering greatness". Funes, we are told, is incapable of Platonic ideas, of generalities, of abstraction; his world is one of intolerably uncountable details. He finds it very difficult to sleep, since he recalls "every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which [surround] him".
Borges spends the whole night talking to Funes in the dark. When dawn reveals Funes's face, only 19 years old, Borges sees him "as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, anterior to the prophecies and the pyramids".
Later Borges learns that Funes died of natural causes a couple of years after their meeting.
"The Form of the Sword" (1942): An Irishman, now living near Tacuarembó in Uruguay, recounts his experiences in the Irish War of Independence and how he received the large scar on his face.
Borges starts the story narrating as himself as he is forced to stop in a small town run by the unnamed Irishman, who is known as strict but fair. Borges ingratiates himself with the Irishman, and they go out to drink together on the patio. Borges gets drunk and asks about the origin of a crescent-shaped scar on the Irishman's face. His story is as follows:
The Irishman describes the war and the introduction of a new comrade, John Vincent Moon, into their band of rebels. He explains that the new comrade was a coward, that he was arrogant about his mental capabilities but terrified of getting hurt. He describes how he himself saved John Vincent Moon's life when they were attacked by soldiers. John Vincent Moon was scraped by a bullet as they escaped, but the wound was only superficial.
He and Vincent Moon fled together to a general's house, where they stayed for ten days. The ninth day, he went out to avenge the death of some comrades. Vincent Moon always stayed at the house, pleading his injury. When the Irishman returned on their last day in the house, he heard Vincent Moon on the phone, selling him to the police.
He recounts his chase of Vincent Moon, how he cornered him and marked a moon-shaped scar on his forehead just before he was captured by the police.
Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944): Theme Of The Traitor And The Hero "That history should have imitated history was already sufficiently astonishing; that history should imitate literature is inconceivable. . . ." Plot Summary & Historical Background: Settings - The Narrative is set in Ireland in 1824. However Borges is only using this as an example. He says " The action takes place in a oppressed and tenacious country: Poland, Ireland, The Venetian Republic, some South American or Balkan state". This universalises the story of Kilpatrick and the experience of Ryan showing it has happened everywhere. It ends with Ryan deciding to keep silent the discovery that his great-grandfather was a traitor to the same cause to which history had deemed him a hero. The wants to preserve his heroic image and people's passion for the rebellious cause. Ryan decides to keep quiet and be part of Kilpatrick's story. Borges observed that his readers would find parallel between the story and that of Julius Caesar. Consequently, he is trying to show that it is not a coincidence, and that every event in history has its parallel in Literature and vice-versa. History is a combination of repeating themes. Nothing like free will. We are all just characters acting based on what has been predetermined.
Death and the Compass (1942): Lönnrot is a famous detective in an unnamed city based upon Buenos Aires. When a rabbi is killed in his hotel room on the third of December, Lönnrot is assigned to the case. He quickly determines that the murder was not accidental based on the cryptic message left on the rabbi's typewriter "The first letter of the name has been uttered." He connects this with the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter, unspeakable name of God. He further connects it with his criminal nemesis, Red Scharlach.
Exactly one month later, on the third of January, a second murder takes place with the message "The second letter of the name has been uttered" left at the crime site. Predictably, the same thing happens on the third of February, with the message this time reading "The last letter of the name has been uttered."
However, Lönnrot is not convinced that the spree is finished, as the Tetragrammaton contains four letters, two of them being the same letter repeated. Furthermore, according to the Jewish calendar, the murders actually took place on the fourth of December, January, and February, respectively. He predicts that the next month will see one, final killing. In the mean time, the detective's office receives an anonymous tip to view the map locations of the murders, which coincide to the points of an equilateral triangle. Using these points he constructs a rhombus, recognizing that the southern end of the city has yet to be terrorized (the South is of particular symbolic importance to Borges). The location is the chateau Triste-le-Roi.
Lönnrot arrives at the site a day in advance, prepared to surprise the murderers. He is grabbed in the dark by two henchman and Scharlach emerges from the shadows. Scharlach reveals that Lönnrot killed his brother and he swore to avenge his death. Killing the rabbi was indeed accidental, but Scharlach used Lönnrot's over-intellectualizing (as well as the police report in the newspaper that he was following a kabbalistic pattern to track the criminals) to lure Lönnrot to this very spot. It was Scharlach who suggested that the police view the map locations to discover the spot of the final act. Lönnrot becomes calm in the face of death and responds that Scharlach made his maze too complex, instead of a four sided square it should have been but a single line of murders, with each subsequent murder taking place on the halfway point (A 8 km from B, C 4 km from each, D 2 km from A and C). Lönnrot says that philosophers have been lost on this line, so a simple detective should feel no shame to do the same (reference to Zeno's Paradox). Scharlach promises that he will give him this simpler labyrinth in their next "incarnation," and shoots him.
"The Secret Miracle" (1943): The main character of the story is a playwright named Jaromir Hladík [1], who is living in Prague when it is occupied by the Nazis during World War II. Hladik is arrested and charged with being Jewish as well as opposing the Anschluss, and sentenced to die by firing squad.
Although he at first experiences simple terror at the prospect of death, Hladík's main concern soon turns to his unfinished play, titled The Enemies. His previous works he feels to be unsatisfactory, and wants to complete this play, which he feels to be the one by which history will judge and vindicate him. With two acts left to write and his death sentence to be carried out in a matter of days, however, it seems impossible that he could complete it in time.
On the last night before his death, Hladík prays to God, requesting that he be granted one year in which to finish the play. That night, he dreams of going to a library, where one of the books contains God within a single letter on one of the pages, which the old, bitter librarian has been unable to find despite looking for most of his life. Someone returns an atlas to the library; Hladik touches a letter on a map of India and hears a voice that says to him, "The time for your labor has been granted".
The next day at the appointed time, two soldiers come for Hladík, and he is taken outside and lined up before the firing squad. The sergeant calls out the order to fire, and time stops. The entire world freezes motionless, including Hladík himself, standing in place before the firing squad; however, although he is completely paralyzed, he remains conscious. After a time, he understands: God has granted him the time he requested. For him, a year of subjective time will pass between the sergeant's order and the soldiers' firing their rifles, though no one else will realize that anything unusual has happened - hence, the "secret miracle" of the story's title.
Working from memory, Hladík mentally writes, expands and edits his play, shaping every detail and nuance to his satisfaction. Finally, after a year of labor, he completes it; only a single epithet is left to be written, which he chooses, and time begins again and the volley from the soldiers' rifles kills him.
"Three Versions of Judas" (1944): The story begins as a critical analysis of works of a fictitious writer Nils Runeberg. Nils Runeberg lives in the city Lund, where he publishes two books: Kristus och Judas (1904) [Christ and Judas] and his magnum opus Den hemlige Frälsaren (1909) [The secret Savior]. Borges analyses these two works (three if the revised edition of Kristus och Judas is counted separately) and discusses their heretical conclusions without providing the "dialectic or his (Nils Runeberg) proofs". The story ends with the death of Nils Runeberg. He dies a death of anonymity which was undeserved considering the controversial nature of his texts.
"The End" (1953, 2nd edition only): "The End" is a response to the Argentine epic Martín Fierro, which Borges had discussed in a long essay published earlier that year.[1] In the story, a man who presumably has had a crippling stroke winds up half seeing and half hearing a definitive fight between a "negro" who has been dwelling in the man's store and a mysterious stranger which the negro had been waiting for. The story ends ambiguously and leaves the readers with a question which only they can answer: does Fierro succeed in leaving his violent past behind him, or has he rather come to fully embrace his true nature?
Literary scholars debate on the interpretation that Fierro is a Christ-like figure. He himself has faced a myriad of trials and tribulations, and now has to face them. Additionally, Martin Fierro is actually years old, the same as Jesus Christ. Also, the reader is to presume that Fierro dies in his one final battle.
"The Sect of the Phoenix" (1952, 2nd edition only): Borges gives an enigmatic description (or at least, assertion of the existence) of a secret society dating back to ancient times, the members of which "resemble every man in the world" and whose membership consists simply of the performance of a strange ritual.
Essentially the story is an extended riddle, the mysterious description referring to a commonplace fact (as Borges points out in the prologue to Artifices). The probable and common answer is that the riddle refers to sexual intercourse, and Borges himself confessed as much. However, in relation to the debate on Borges' sexual orientation, it is argued by some that the secret Borges had in mind was, more specifically, homosexual intercourse or homosexuality in general; to support this, they point to such clues as “scattered across the face of the earth, only one thing — the Secret — unites them and will unite them until the end of time”, which do not fit well with the hypothesis of sexual intercourse in general. Against this reading, however, one might observe the story's claim that "the history of the sect records no persecutions", which cannot be true if the 'Secret' is homosexual intercourse. Moreover, the name of the sect associates it with the mythological Phoenix, suggesting regeneration and renewal of life: the more obvious analogy, therefore, would be with procreative (that is, heterosexual) intercourse.
"The South" (1953, 2nd edition only): Johannes Dahlmann was a minister in an Evangelical Church. Juan Dahlmann, one of his grandchildren, is a secretary in an Argentine library. Although of German descent, he is proud of his Argentine maternal ancestors. He has a number of artifacts from his forefather: an old sword, a lithograph photo, and a ranch home in southern Argentina he has never found time to visit.
In February 1939, he obtains a copy of the Arabian Nights. He takes the book home, and -- eager to examine it -- rushes up the stairs and gashes his forehead against a recently painted beam. The wound Dahlmann suffers forces him to lie bedridden with a very high fever. After a few days, his doctors move him to the hospital. On his way there, Dahlmann feels that perhaps the move will do him good. At the hospital, however, Dahlmann's treatment for his injury causes him great pain and discomfort, causing him to feel humiliation and self-hatred, almost as though he were in hell.
(An interpretation of the story could be that what follows is an explanation of his idealized death -- the one Juan Dahlmann fabricates and stages in his mind -- in order to pass into the next life in an honorable manner.)
After days in the hospital he is suddenly told that he is recovering, after almost having died of septicemia. Juan Dahlmann sets off to his ranch to convalesce. The story shifts locations to a train station, where Dahlmann is waiting for a train to travel to his ranch. He regards the city sights with great joy, and he decides to go to a restaurant for a bite to eat. In the restaurant he notices a cat, the mythical creature who, in many cultures (for example Egypt), is associated with eternity and the gods.
After his meal, Dahlmann boards the train, and rides out of the city into the countryside. He begins to read the 1001 Arabian Nights, but then closes the book to enjoy the scenery. The train conductor enters his compartment and notifies him that the train will not be stopping at his destination, but at a previous station. Once the train reaches the deserted station, Dahlmann steps off into a small countryside town. He makes his way through the dusty streets and finds the only restaurant. He sits down, orders food, and begins to read the 1001 Arabian Nights.
Three rowdy ranch workers sitting at a table nearby throw a bread crumb at him; this he ignores. However, after a short while, they begin again. This time, Dahlmann stands up in order to exit the establishment. The shopkeeper (calling him by name) anxiously asks Dahlmann to pay them no heed, saying they are drunk. This prompts Dahlmann to do the opposite, to face them. One of the ranch workers brandishes a knife. Seeing the situation getting out of hand, the shopkeeper calls out that Dahlmann does not even have a weapon. At this point, an old man in the corner, a gaucho (which to Dahlmann represents the essence of the South as well as the past) throws a knife to Dahlmann. It lands at his feet. As he picks up the knife, Dahlmann realizes that it will not be of any use to his defense. He knows he has never wielded a knife in his life and that if he fights he is going to die. However, he feels that his death in a knife fight is honorable, that it is the one he would have chosen when he was sick in the hospital, and he decides to go. The story ends with Dahlmann and the farmer exiting the bar and walking into the streets as the setting sun blazes behind them.
The events of the story are semi-autobiographical: Borges also worked in a library. At New Year's 1939, Borges suffered a severe head wound and nearly died of blood poisoning. Borges considered "The South" to be his best story.
Review: Borges's fiction is best taken in small doses. I found that reading too many of them at once causes them to sound gimmicky and contrived rather than mysterious and magical. the little tricks that Borges plays: his obsession with labyrinths, his fiddling with reality, his confusing and unnecessary erudition.
On the other hand, when Borges is on, he's on. His stories are an endless fountain of ideas. He never develops any of them fully, but within one story he'll reel off concept after concept that lesser writers would try to base their life works on. And, although his truly great stories are few and far between, when they come up they're truly gems, to be remembered forever.
Unfortunately, that's all his stories are good for: ideas. When there aren't any cool ideas in them, or when there is only one idea being communicated, his stories fall flat. And none of them really speak to "the human condition," or provoke any sort of real emotion. Instead, his stories feel like puzzle boxes; sometimes they're pretty lame, sometimes pretty neat. He's inventive.
The translations in Ficciones are somewhat inconsistent; I think Borges's Collected Fictions is supposed to be much better in terms of style, since all of the stories there are translated by a single person.
Opening Line: “I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia.”
Closing Line: “Firmly clutching his knife, which he perhaps would not know how to wield, Dahlmann went out into the plain.”
Quotes: "He walked toward the sheets of flame. They did not bite his flesh, they caressed him and flooded him without heat or combustion......”
Rating: Poor. I did not understand the stories, or the ideas.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

366. The Waves – Virginia Woolf

History: first published in 1931, is Virginia Woolf's most experimental novel. It consists of soliloquies spoken by the book's six characters: Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis. Also important is Percival, the seventh character, though readers never hear him speak through his own voice. The monologues that span the characters' lives are broken up by nine brief third-person interludes detailing a coastal scene at varying stages in a day from sunrise to sunset.
The novel follows its six narrators from childhood through adulthood. Woolf's novel is concerned with the individual consciousness and the ways in which multiple consciousnesses can weave together. The difficulty of assigning genre to this novel is complicated by the fact that The Waves blurs distinctions between prose and poetry, allowing the novel to flow between six not dissimilar interior monologues. The book similarly breaks down boundaries between people, and Woolf herself wrote in her Diary that the six were not meant to be separate "characters" at all, but rather facets of consciousness illuminating a sense of continuity. Even the name "novel" may not accurately describe the complex form of The Waves. Woolf herself called it not a novel but a "playpoem."
Plot: As the six characters or "voices" alternately speak, Woolf explores concepts of individuality, self, and community. Each character is distinct, yet together they compose a gestalt about a silent central consciousness. Bernard is a story-teller, always seeking some elusive and apt phrase (some critics see Woolf's friend E. M. Forster as an inspiration); Louis is an outsider, who seeks acceptance and success (some critics see aspects of T. S. Eliot, whom Woolf knew well, in Louis); Neville (who may be partially based on another of Woolf's friends, Lytton Strachey) desires love, seeking out a series of men, each of whom become the present object of his transcendent love; Jinny is a socialite, whose Weltanschauung corresponds to her physical, corporeal beauty; Susan flees the city, in preference for the countryside, where she grapples with the thrills and doubts of motherhood; and Rhoda is riddled with self-doubt and anxiety, always rejecting and indicting human compromise, always seeking out solitude (as such, Rhoda echoes Shelley's poem "The Question"; paraphrased: I shall gather my flowers and present them--O! to whom?). Percival (partially based on Woolf's brother, Thoby Stephen) is the god-like but morally flawed hero of the other six, who dies midway through the novel on an imperialist quest in British-dominated colonial India. Although Percival never speaks through a monologue of his own in The Waves, readers learn about him in detail as the other six characters repeatedly describe and reflect on him throughout the book.
Review: I loved the “play-poem” form in which it’s written, where the dialogue and thoughts of each character are almost free verse.
I loved Rhoda’s horror of Math:
Now the terror is beginning. Now taking her lump of chalk she draws figures, six, seven, eight, and then a cross and then a line on the blackboard. What is the answer? The others look; they look with understanding. Louis writes; Susan writes; Neville writes; Jinny writes; even Bernard has now begun to write. But I cannot write. I see only figures. The others are handing in their answers, one by one. “Now it is my turn. But I have no answer. The others are allowed to go. They slam the door. Miss Hudson goes. I am left alone to find an answer. The figures mean nothing now. (p. 21)
I loved Bernard, escaping to Rome after the death of Percival, and writing in his notebook little quotes which he can pull out later from their appropriate alphabetical heading:
These moments of escape are not to be despised. They come too seldom. Tahiti becomes possible. Leaning over this parapet I see far out a waste of water. A fin turns. This bare visual impression is unattached to any line of reason, it springs up as one might see the fin of a porpoise on the horizon. Visual impressions often communicate thus briefly statements that we shall in time to come uncover and coax into words. I note under F., therefore, ‘Fin in a waste of waters.’ I, who am perpetually making notes in the margin of my mind for some final statement, make this mark, waiting for some winter’s evening.” (p.189)
I loved the vocabulary, coming across words I don’t often see which hardly ever happens to me when I read authors of today:
-purlieus of the homestead
-oleaginous spots on the linoleum
-All here is false; all is meretricious.
-vinous, amorous light
-encaustic tiles
-breathes stertorously
-the tree was Byron’s tree, lachrymose
-they dive like guillemots
-a purple lady swelling, circumambient
-dancing like a flame, febrile
And, Catullus? The 1st century Roman poet is mentioned no less than five times before page 160 or so.
I loved the reference to waves preceding each chapter, a clue as to what we’ll find within:
The wave paused, and then drew out again, sighing like a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously. (p.7)
The wind rose. The waves drummed on the shore, like turbaned warriors, like turbaned men with poisoned assegais who, whirling their arms on high, advance upon the feeding flocks, the white sheep. (p. 75)
Like a long wave, like a roll of heavy waters, he went over me, his devastating presence-dragging me open, laying bare the pebbles on the shore of my soul. It was humiliating; I was turned to small stones. (Bernard, p. 89)
Like a ribbon of weed I am flung far every time the door opens. The wave breaks. I am the foam that sweeps and fills the uttermost rims of the rocks with whiteness; I am also a girl, here in this room.” (Rhoda, p. 107)
The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping. (p. 150)
Now the news of Percival’s death has come upon them, and then we find:
The waves massed themselves, curved their backs and crashed. Up spurted stones and shingle. They swept round the rocks, and the spray, leaping high, spattered the walls of a cave that had been dry before, and left pools inland, where some fish, stranded, lashed its tail as the wave drew back. (p. 166)
The waves no longer visited the further pools or reached the dotted black line which lay irregularly marked upon the beach. The sand was pearl white, smoothed and shining. (p. 182)
Erratically rays of light flashed and wandered, like signals from sunken islands, or darts shot through laurel groves by shameless, laughing boys. But the waves, as they neared the shore, were robbed of light, and fell in one long concussion, like a wall falling, a wall of grey stone, unpierced by any chink of light. (p. 207)
As if there were waves of darkness in the air, darkness moved on, covering houses, hills, trees, as waves of water wash round the sides of some sunken ship. (p. 237)
At the conclusion of the book we find this:
“And in me too the wave rises. It swells; it arches its back. I am aware once more of a new desire, something rising beneath me like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls him back. What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man’s, like Percival’s, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!"
Opening Line: “The sun had not risen.”
Closing Line: “The waves broke on the shore.”
Quotes: See above.