Sunday, April 17, 2011

400. The Immoralist – Andre Gide

History: In 1902, when André Gide's The Immoralist was first published in France in 1902 as L'Immoraliste, it was considered shocking. What some see as a story of dereliction, others see as a tale of introspection and self-discovery. The Immoralist is based on Gide’s personal experience of discovering his homosexuality while traveling as a young man in North Africa. The central theme of The Immoralist is repressed homosexuality. Gide’s narrative further explores themes of life versus death, mind versus body, and the process of self-discovery.
Plot: While traveling to Tunis on honeymoon with his new bride, the Parisian scholar Michel is overcome by tuberculosis. As he recovers, he re-discovers the physical pleasures of living and resolves to forgo his studies of the past in order to experience the present—to let "the layers of acquired knowledge peel away from the mind like a cosmetic and reveal, in patches, the naked flesh beneath, the authentic being hidden there."
This experience inspires him to embark on a journey of self-discovery through which he eventually finds himself leading a double life: he presents a false facade to his wife, while going out on his own to follow his natural inclinations and experience his true inner being. This is not, however, the Michel his colleagues knew—not a Michel that will be readily accepted by traditional society—and he must hide his new values under the patina of what he now reviles. Back home in France, Marceline announces that she is pregnant. Meanwhile, Michel finds himself increasingly drawn to healthy and attractive young men. Bored by Parisian society, he moves to a family farm in Normandy. He is happy there, especially in the company of young Charles, but he must soon return to the city and academe. . Michel remains restless until he gives his first lecture and runs into Ménalque, who has long outraged society, and recognizes in him a reflection of his torment. Becoming ill from tuberculosis, Marceline suffers a miscarriage. Michel, motivated by a strong desire to return to North Africa, pushes her to travel with him, despite her deteriorating health. After she dies, Michel is left to grapple with the meaning of his own life, and to come to terms with his homosexual tendencies.
Review: Written nearly a century ago, The Immoralist describes Michel’s process of selfrealization in subtle, veiled terms. There is no direct reference in the novel to homosexuality.
L’Immoraliste lets us share the consciousness Michel himself has of his being. It is only as we probe into the thematic fabric, the novel's contrasting and similar correlative themes that we discover Michel's true identity underneath his own evaluation of it. In this sense the récit is a palimpsest with the essence of Michel's true nature lying underneath or between the lines. The art of Gide in this kind of work is to keep the narrator himself imperceptive and unaware of the implications of his own narrative while granting the reader all the evidence necessary to understand who Michel is and why.
Gide's preface to L’Immoraliste places Michel's particular problem in the general context of world literature, when he maintains that the public wants the author to take sides either in favor of Alceste or Philinte, of Hamlet or Ophelia, of Faust or Margaret, of Adam or Jehovah. Gide's refusal to pronounce judgment and his claim to authorial neutrality allow him to transcend a didactic stance and places Michel's specific problems among the universal problems of mankind. Gide's use of the word "problem" is twofold. The work of art presents both an aesthetic and a moral problem. The aesthetic aspect of Michel's story, the exposition and clarification of all the necessary elements of Michel's existence must be solved within the coherence of the work itself: "en art, il n'y a pas de problèmes--dont l'oeuvre d'art ne soit la suffisante solution." The moral aspect of Michel's story, however, remains a question for each individual reader. Gide, the artist, does not covet the rôle of the priest and refuses to legislate morals.
L’Immoraliste is divided into three parts which are framed by the letter written from Sidi revealing Michel's present desolation and by the concluding remarks which leave Michel's future unsolved in the hands of the Président du Conseil, and, we the readers, are called upon to judge ourselves without hypocrisy as we, too, are placed before a Grand Inquisitor: "Il en est plus d'un aujourd'hui, je le crains, qui oserait en ce récit se reconnaître," says one of Michel's friends (p. 13). The frame serves the additional purpose of placing Michel in a potential relationship to society, for no matter how hermit-like he wishes to live, he is forced to be part of the larger circle of humanity.
The story of L’Immoraliste revolves around Michel's problem of existence. The first part is devoted to his gradual awakening to the fact that he does in reality exist as a whole human being, as a person apart from others, as an independent entity with individual needs and desires. His exhilaration at being alive culminates in the moment of strength and love in Sorrento from which new hope and the promise of new life emerge. The second and third parts show his fight to control the essence of this existence by his futile attempt to recapture the happiness he felt at the awakening sensation of being alive and his contradictory behavior which leads him to develop and destroy concomitantly the things that give meaning to his life. Thus his whole youth had been devoted to his scholarly pursuits which he rejects on the theory that they cannot give meaning to the here and now. In this way also he first develops the land at "La Morinière" only later to poach on his own property. And in like manner Michel consciously nurtures his love toward Marceline only to let that love be subjugated to his obsession to recapture an irretrievable past where Marceline is relentlessly destroyed.
Opening Line: “Yes you were right: Michel has spoken to us, my dear brother.”
Closing Line: “There may be some truth in what she says…”
Quotes: "I did not understand the forbearance of this African earth, submerged for days at a time and now awakening from winter, drunk with water, bursting with new juices; it laughed in this springtime frenzy whose echo, whose image I perceived within myself."
Rating: Good.

399. July's People - Nadine Gordimer

History: Published in 1991 Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer wrote this book before the end of apartheid as her prediction of how it would end. The book was notably banned in South Africa after its publication
Plot: The novel is set during a fictional civil war in which black South Africans have violently overturned the system of apartheid. The story follows the Smales, a liberal White South African family who were forced to flee Johannesburg to the native village of their black servant, July.
The novel opens the morning after an exhausting three-day trip through bush country to reach the village. July brings tea for Maureen and Bamford Smale and breakfast for their children, Victor, Gina, and Royce. After experiencing disorientation from the trip, Maureen asks her husband about their vehicle, a small truck called a bakkie. He tells her that July has hidden it.
The Smales find themselves dependent on July, and July's family questions their presence in the village. He explains their situation, telling his mother and wife, Martha, about the violence in the country. They cannot, however, fully believe his account given their past experience with white dominance.
To do something other than listen constantly for news on his radio, Bam Smale builds a water tank for the village. Maureen tries to read a novel, since July will not let her work, but discovers that no fiction can compete with her current situation. She then recalls her girlhood days and remembers walking home from school with her family's black servant, Lydia, who carried Maureen's school case on her head. One day, a photographer took their picture. Years later, Maureen saw the picture in a Life photograph book and for the first time questioned why Lydia was carrying her books.
One night, after Bam unsuccessfully tries socializing with the villagers, Bam and Maureen are startled by July's departure as a passenger in the bakkie. Anxious over losing the vehicle, they argue, blaming each other for their situation. Later, while standing nude in the rain, Maureen sees the bakkie return. She falls asleep that night without telling Bam about the vehicle.
When July comes to their hut the next day, Bam greets him with the inappropriate authority of their former relationship. Apparently ignoring Bam's tone, July tells them he went to the shops for supplies. Though they could, they do not ask him for the keys to the bakkie. July begins to learn how to drive. When they ask him what he will do if caught driving the vehicle, he says he will say he owns it.
Later, Maureen asks Victor to retrieve July (here she mentions that she is menstruating). She returns the bakkie's keys to July. Knowing that she does not want him to keep the keys, he makes her recall his former status as her "boy" when he kept the keys to her house. He also recalls the distrust he sensed from her at the time. Stung by his words, Maureen tries to defend her treatment of him and says their former relationship has ended, that he is no longer a servant. He then shocks her by asking if she is going to pay him this month. He offers the car keys back to her, saying he worked for her for fifteen years because his family needed him to. She then retaliates by mentioning Ellen, his mistress in Johannesburg. Though feeling a hollow victory, Maureen knows July will never forgive her this transgression. He keeps the car keys.
Bam kills two baby warthogs with his small shotgun. Before the hunt, he offers to let July's friend, Daniel, shoot the gun sometime. As he kills the warthogs he realizes just how different his life was and how spoiled they were (he went from shooting birds to warthogs and didn't like the difference in blood and destruction). Bam gives the larger wart-hog to the villagers and keeps the smaller (and more tender) one. Everyone joyfully feasts on the meat, an intoxicating delicacy, and Bam and Maureen make love for the first time since their journey. He wakes up in a daze and thinks the pig's blood is on his penis, then realizes it was his wife's.
The scene shifts to July and his family eating the meat and talking about the Smales. July discounts Martha's worries that the white family will bring trouble. Martha recalls the times without July when he, like most men with families, worked in the city. Like the seasons, the long absences of their husbands have become an expected part of black women's lives.
Gina and her friend, Nyiko, play with newborn kittens, and Maureen scolds them. Later, after they listen for news on the radio, Bam asks Maureen if she found a home for the kittens. She reveals that she has drowned them in a bucket of water.
Maureen tries working with the women in the fields, digging up leaves and roots. Afterward, she goes to see July, who is working on the bakkie. July does not want to hear about the killing on the news and hopes everything "will come back all right." Maureen asks, dumbfounded, if he really wants a return to the ways things were. July asks if hunger compels her to search for spinach with the women; she replies that she goes to pass the time. As always, she feels that the workplace language they speak hinders their ability to communicate.
When July says she should not work with the women, she asks if he fears she will tell his wife about Ellen. He angrily asserts that she can only tell Martha that he has always been a good servant. Maureen, frightened, realizes that the dignity she thought she had always conferred upon him was actually humiliating to him. He informs her that he and the Smales have been summoned to the chief's village. Though July has authority in his village, they still must ask the chief's permission to stay. Maureen struggles with her new subservience to July.
The Smales visit the chief the next morning, afraid that the chief will force them out. The chief asks them why they have come to his nation and asks about events in Johannesburg. He cannot believe that the white government is powerless and that whites are running from Blacks. He says that the black revolutionaries are not from his nation and that the Whites, who would never let him own a gun, will give him guns to aid in the struggle against the black attackers. He tells Bam to bring his gun and teach him how to shoot it.
Outraged by this suggestion, Bam asks if the chief really intends to kill other blacks, saying that the entire black nation is the chief's nation. After further discussion, the chief allows them to stay with Mwawate (July) and says that he will visit them to learn how to shoot Bam's gun.
On the return trip, July explains that the chief talks instead of acts. Furthermore, the chief, who never fought the whites, is too poor and defenseless to fight other blacks. Upon their return to their hut, Maureen and Bam speak in the phrases they had used in their former life, and these phrases cannot adequately describe their current predicament. Bam begins criticizing July's new confidence and his criticisms of the chief. Maureen says that July was talking about himself, that he will not fight for anyone and is risking his life by having the family there. Maureen suggests that they leave, making Bam confront what they both know: they have nowhere to go and no means by which to get there.
With the women, Maureen clumsily cuts grass for the huts. After the cutting, July criticizes Martha for placing the grass bundles in front of the Bam and Maureen's house, where their children will ruin it. They discuss July's past and his times in the city over the last fifteen years. Rejecting July's contention that his family will move to the city once the fighting ends, Martha suggests that he stay in the village. According to Daniel, they will no longer face white restrictions, and, with his city experience, July can run his own shop.
A man brings a battery-operated amplifier to the village and provides them with a night's entertainment, during which many villagers drink heavily. The Smales do not partake in the drinking but return to their hut, where they find their gun missing.
With no police to help him, Bam is impotent in the face of the theft. Maureen feels humiliated for Bam. She leaves to find July, who is by the bakkie. They realize that only Daniel was absent from the party, and Maureen says July must get the gun from him. Daniel, however, has left. After July asserts that the Smales always make trouble for him, Maureen accuses July of stealing small items from her in Johannesburg. Angered, he speaks to her in his own language, and "She understood although she knew no word. Understood everything: what he had had to be, how she had covered up to herself for him, in order for him to be her idea of him. But for himself — to be intelligent, honest, dignified for her was nothing; his measure as a man was taken elsewhere and by others," his own people. July then informs her that Daniel has joined the revolution. She tells July that he abandoned Ellen and only wants the bakkie so he can feel important, but that, too, will become useless when his gas money runs out.
After Gina goes to play with Nyiko and Bam goes with Victor and Royce to fish, a helicopter with unidentifiable markings flies over the village. Maureen fervently chases the helicopter, and the novel ends with her still running toward it and its unknown occupants, who could be either "saviours or murderers."
Review: The key theme of the novel hangs around perception and mis-understanding of people’s behaviour and their motives . Maureen as July’s former employer has always thought she and her husband were open-minded but as the book continues we see her liberalism put to the test. She always trusted July as a servant, confident that he was always honest with money and their belongings and initially feels grateful to him for rescuing them. However while at July’s house, she discovers objects that used to belong to the Smales. While these are of low value – for example a pair of scissors), an underlying suspicion begins to creep through and she begins to question July’s motives. Is Maureen right to worry about July’s reasons for bringing the family there or is she just being paranoid? Is she as liberal as she thinks or were her values just a facade? As a reader we are brought on the journey really experiencing the situation and relationships.
Opening Line: “You like to have some cup of tea?”
Closing Line: “She runs.”
Quotes: “- And soap? – She was cherishing a big cake of toilet soap, carefully drying it after each use… Soap he had remembered to take from her store-cupboard? His clean clothes smelled of Lifebuoy she bought for them – the servants. He didn’t say; perhaps merely not to boasts his foresight. She was going to ask- and quite saw that she could not.”
Rating: Okay

398. The Trial - Franz Kafka

History: This book was first published in 1925. Like Kafka's other novels, The Trial was never completed, although it does include a chapter which brings the story to an end. Because of this there are certain inconsistencies which exist within the novel, such as disparities in timing in addition to other flaws in narration.
After his death in 1924, Kafka's friend and literary executor Max Brod edited the text for publication.
Plot: On his thirtieth birthday, a senior bank clerk, Josef K., who lives in lodgings, is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents for an unspecified crime. The agents do not name the authority for which they are acting. He is not taken away, however, but left at home to await instructions from the Committee of Affairs.
K. later visits the court and stands in the witness box pleading his case. He then returns home.
K. later goes to visit the magistrate again, but instead is forced to have a meeting with an attendant's wife. Looking at the Magistrate's books, he discovers a cache of pornography.
K. returns home to find Fräulein Montag, a lodger from another room, moving in with Fräulein Bürstner. He suspects that this is to prevent him from pursuing his affair with the latter woman. Yet another lodger, Captain Lanz, appears to be in league with Montag.
Later, in a store room at his own bank, K. discovers the two agents, who arrested him, being whipped by a flogger for asking K. for bribes, as a result of complaints K. previously made about them to the Magistrate. K. tries to argue with the flogger, saying that the men need not be whipped, but the flogger cannot be swayed. The next day he returns to the store room and is shocked to find everything as he had found it the day before, including the Whipper and the two agents.
K. is visited by his uncle, who is a friend of a lawyer. The lawyer was with the Clerk of the Court. The uncle seems distressed by K.'s predicament. At first sympathetic, he becomes concerned K. is underestimating the seriousness of the case. The uncle introduces K. to an advocate, who is attended by Leni, a nurse, who K.'s uncle suspects is the advocate's mistress. K. has a sexual encounter with Leni, whilst his uncle is talking with the Advocate and the Chief Clerk of the Court, much to his uncle's anger, and to the detriment of his case.
K. visits the advocate and finds him to be a capricious and unhelpful character. K. returns to his bank but finds that his colleagues are trying to undermine him.
K. is advised by one of his bank clients to visit Titorelli, a court painter, for advice. Titorelli has no official connections, yet seems to have a deep understanding of the process. K. learns that, to Titorelli's knowledge, not a single defendant has ever been acquitted. He sets out what K.'s options are, but the consequences of all of them are unpleasant: they consist of different delay tactics to stretch out his case as long as possible before the inevitable "Guilty" verdict. Titorelli instructs K. that there's not much he can do since he doesn't know of what crime he has been accused.
K. decides to take control of matters himself and visits his advocate with the intention of dismissing him. At the advocate's office he meets a downtrodden individual, Block, a client who offers K. some insight from a client's perspective. Block's case has continued for five years and he appears to have been virtually enslaved by his dependence on the advocate's meaningless and circular advice. The advocate mocks Block in front of K. for his dog-like subservience. This experience further poisons K.'s opinion of his advocate, and K. is bemused as to why his advocate would think that seeing such a client, in such a state, could change his mind. (This chapter was left unfinished by the author.)
K. is asked to tour an Italian client around local places of cultural interest, but the Italian client short of time asks K. to tour him around only the cathedral, setting a time to meet there. When the client doesn't show up, K. explores the cathedral which is empty except for an old woman and a church official. K. decides to leave, as a priest K. notices seems to be preparing to give a sermon from a small second pulpit, lest it begin and K. be compelled to stay for its entirety. Instead of giving a sermon, the priest calls out K.'s name, although K. has never known the priest. The priest works for the court, and tells K. a fable, that is meant to explain his situation, but instead causes confusion, and implies that K.'s fate is hopeless. Before the Law begins as a parable, then continues with several pages of interpretation between the Priest and K. The gravity of the priest's words prepares the reader for an unpleasant ending.
On the last day of K.'s thirty-first year, two men arrive to execute him. He offers little resistance, suggesting that he has realised this as being inevitable for some time. They lead him to a quarry where he is expected to kill himself, but he cannot. The two men then execute him. His last words describe his own death: "Like a dog!"
Review: The Trial led to the word Kafkaesque’ defined as the helplessness of man in the face of unknown forces that persecute him without reason. The nature of the crime is never revealed to the reader or even to Joseph himself. Joseph progresses through various stages of confusion and paranoia, trying to understand his situation as he moves from one strange situation to another.
In Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph K. is persecuted by the Law (symbolized by the Court) and is not given a reason for his arrest. The entire court system of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I is parodied, as well as the police, who are portrayed as a theater’ act; they were open to bribery and corruption of all sorts while conducting legal procedures that made no sense. Along with this central theme, the novel also denotes the alienation and anxiety of humanity in general in the absence of God’ as revealed by other existentialists such as: Sartre, Camus and Kierkegard.
Kafka intentionally set out to write parables, not just novels, about the human condition. The Trial is a parable that includes the smaller parable Before the Law. There is clearly a relationship between the two but the exact meaning of either parable is left up to the individual reader. K. and the Priest discuss the many possible readings. Both the short parable and their discussion seem to indicate that the reader is much like the man at the gate; there is a meaning in the story for everyone just as there is one gate to the Law for each person.
The parable within Kafka's masterpiece highlights perfectly the essence of his philosophy. Assigned unique roles in life, individuals must search deep within the apparent absurdity of existence to achieve a somewhat objective self-awareness. The old man, therefore, is the symbol of this universal search inherent to mankind. The Trial is not simply a novel about the potential disaster of over-bureaucratisation in society; it is an exploration of the personal, emotional and particularly subjective needs of individual human beings.
Opening Line: Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had
done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.
Closing Line: "Like a dog!" he
said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him.
Quotes: "The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other."
Rating: Okay