As the year nears its end, time is running out to write at length about some of the new books that gave me pleasure. Thus this quick list of favorites. As usual, my taste runs to prose that’s off-the-beaten-path.
By Bill Marx.
My teaching schedule crowds out the time it takes to both edit The Arts Fuse and write reviews, but I keep hoping that I will be able to do justice to books I read during the year. But 2012 is kicking down the door, so here are some short takes on volumes that I have enjoyed.
They are translations, partly because I am a judge for the Best Translated Book Awards (fiction division) but the selections are also propelled by my belief that quality fiction and non-fiction from other countries is overlooked at the same time mediocre work from American/British writers is overhyped, at least given the books I have been able to sample. That doesn’t mean the opposite can’t be true. I couldn’t get through Haruki Murakami’s IQ84–he is a writer I have admired in the past, but this time around his ambition has delivered a two-ton bore. Tommy Wallach’s review of the epic for The Fuse is spot-on.
Until the Dawn’s Light by Aharon Appelfeld. Translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green, Schocken Books, 231 pages, $26.
Appelfeld made his international reputation in the 1980s writing about the Holocaust with a then-shocking, steely indirection, subtly dissecting the illusions of European Jews who believed that they had safely assimilated into gentile society, a dream they carry with them even as they are herded into the cattle cars headed for the crematorium. Critic Irving Howe, writing about Appelfeld’s first novel to be translated into English, Badenheim 1939, observed that “the writing flows seamlessly, enticingly, until one notices that the logic of this quiet narrative is a logic of hallucination and its quietness mounts into a think cloud of foreboding.” Appelfeld’s subject remains the same–the corrosive pathology of religious/ethnic hatred, but “the logic of hallucination” has grown more powerful, overwhelming the now more sensational, at time graphic, story lines.
Appelfeld’s last three books to be translated into English are graphic studies of brutality warping its victims. My favorite of the trio, Laish (translated by Aloma Halter), is a galvanizing exercise in minimalist horror, featuring a hellacious death march made up of bickering Jews who believe they are heading toward escape. It is the darkest, most pitiless of this novels, a magnificent but grim-to-the-bone vision of communal extinction. His next book, Blooms of Darkness, grounds a tale of Jewish survival in an inspiring if grotesque love story. Here Appelfeld provides much more emotional complexity, the story’s horror and suspense leavened by tenderness, even moments of humor. Hugo, an 11-year-old Jew, hides from the Nazis in the apartment of a prostitute who services German soldiers. Told from Hugo’s bewildered point of view (he spends most of his time in the woman’s closet), the novel methodically details the child’s sexual awakening and eventual romance with his savior, their passion coming to its inevitable end.
Until the Dawn’s Light presents Appelfeld’s most detailed analysis of internalized self-hatred, its masochistic furies moving toward an apocalyptic ending. Set in a small, Austrian town, the story centers on Blanca, the intelligent daughter of an assimilated Jewish family who marries outside of the faith, attracted to the protective physical strength of a peasant named Adolf. The woman converts, but eventually she finds that the stigma of her Jewishness is destroying her and threatens to obliterate her son Otto as well: “Blanca suddenly knew that her life in the world would be very short and that she had to take care of Otto.” In the memorable final section, the aimless anti-heroine flees through the countryside, her desire for punishing self-destruction expressed by setting churches on fire. The story is sometimes schematic, and Appelfeld underlines his message about assimilation too heavily, but it is another fascinating book from a master.
An Answer From the Silence: A Story from the Mountains by Max Frisch. Translated from the German Mike Mitchell, Seagull Books, 118 pages, $19.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Swiss writer Max Frisch, and the English translation (via the skillful Mike Mitchell) of this beautiful if thin novella from early in his career serves the valuable purpose of reminding us of his formidable talents. I first encountered Frisch through his plays The Firebugs and Andorra, the former an impish parable focusing on the intersection of conformity and fascism. His masterpiece is I Am Not Stiller (translated from the German by Michael Bullock, Dalkey Archive Press, 383 pages): the novel is his most extended investigation of the porous boundaries of identity. In a review of the 1993 unabridged English translation of I Am Not Stiller, the New York Times catches one of his strengths as an artist:
Mr. Frisch is not really a novelist of ideas; he’s a dramatist of ideas. We live out our ideas through our daily lives, after all, and he grasps every nuance of those daily habits and compulsions. It is the tension between these details and the larger ambitions–so grandly imagined, so absurdly lived out–that makes the novel work
The humorous juxtaposition of the prosaic and the portentous runs through Frisch’s best work–he dramatizes philosophical speculations about the dehumanization of 20th-century, European civilization (running from Sartre to Brecht) with ease, but he brings a streak of modesty that cuts against the portentousness: “One needs to be a genius,” posits the critic Lionel Trilling, “to counter-attack nightmare: perhaps that is the definition of genius.” Frisch was that kind of a genius.
First published in 1937, when the author was in his mid-20s, An Answer From the Silence: A Story from the Mountains became an embarrassment to Frisch; he decided not to include it in his collected works. It was the disappointing culmination of the author’s early efforts to make a living writing literary fiction and journalism: the 25-year-old’s perception of the book’s failure led to his study of architecture. My suspicion is that Frisch was uncomfortable with the volume’s autobiographical earnestness–it lacks the dramatic irony in his later works, the serio-comic distance from the Big Questions. He barely mounts a counter attack to the nightmare this time around.
The plot is as elemental as its setting, the Alps, and its theme (redolent of early Hemingway), which revolves around risking life and limb in a search for meaning in the face of failure. A 30-year-old man, engaged to be married and about to start a job as a teacher, rebels against the neat bourgeois life that awaits him. He decides to tempt death (and assert his individuality) by attempting a solo climb of the “impossible” North Ridge, a mountain top that others have died trying to tame. The book is mature enough to balance life and death wishes, though the latter churn up the most powerful passages in the book:
But you can be in deep despair, you can throw yourself down on the table, sometimes you even feel like hitting your head against the wall to make all the thoughts inside it come spurting out–eventually, at some point or other, a sleep will come that his stronger than everything else, stronger than our thoughts and our despair, a sleep that simply postpones everything and erases thought before it becomes fatal. Yet you know very well that sleep doesn’t solve anything, that it’s just going to strengthen us for further despair, and that the next day you will still be stuck in the same place, and you’ll have to get up again and continue this aimless existence, without belief and without a goal, without meaning, without anything, without a vocation, simply in order to grow older, emptier and even more desperate . . .
An Answer From the Silence is half in love with oblivion—it is a portrait of an artist as would-be suicide, though flickers of love and community, as well as austere descriptions of a skeletal yet vaporous nature, mitigate against sentimental/existential macho posturing. This book is a fine reminder of Frisch’s brilliance—he had nothing to be ashamed of in this early effort at making sense of the senseless.
Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugresic. Translated from the Croatian by David Williams, with contributions from Ellen Elias-Bursac and Celia Hawkesworth. Open Letter, 324 pages, $15.95.
Poet Charles Simic believes that Dubravka Ugresic is “the philosopher of evil and exile, and the storyteller of many shattered lives the wars in former Yugoslavia produced.” I have read through Ugresic’s incisive, non-fiction volumes, and for me she is at her strongest as an essayist (and that is wonderfully ferocious) when she embraces the role of moral scourge, a pitiless satirist who brings sardonic pizazz to slicing and dicing what she calls “the sweet strategies of fascism” in her homeland, Croatia, and its neighboring countries.
The most compelling pieces in this collection chronicle her horrendous experience, while she taught at the University of Zagreb during the 1990’s, of speaking out and then being scapegoated as an undesirable. This experience serving as the symptomatic revelation of a pervasive ethical duplicity—rooted in an abdication of elemental responsibility—that continues to this day, unmitigated, she argues, by the trials of war criminals in the Hague:
It seems, however, that the mere trial of war criminals does not have the power to bring about a real catharsis or to set in motion real social changes. For without the admission of collective responsibility there can be no successful de-Nazification. For many citizens of the former Yugoslavia, regardless of the actual scale of their responsibility and guilt in the recent war–which, we emphasize, is not equal or the same–those who are to blame for everything are always the others: for the Croats it is the Serbs, for the Serbs it is the Muslims, the Kosovo Albanians, the Croats, the whole world . . . All of them blame the communists, Tito, and the Partisans for everything. And then the “Americans,” the “Russians,” “Jews,” “Europe,” “the world, ” unfavorable stars, destiny. All, without distinction, insist on interpreting the events — with they themselves initiated, which they failed to prevent, or in which they themselves took part–as natural catastrophes in which they are exclusively the victims.
As a cultural theorist/commentator, Ugresic is compelling as well–perceptive, acerbic, amusing–especially when she talks about people on the margins of society who are exploited by the well-to-do, such as the Filipinas in Hong Kong: “My hosts say that Hong Kong is a magnet for young business people. The money’s good, the accommodation luxurious, the Filipino maids cheap–ideal conditions for keeping the family wheels turning.” For me, her attack on “karaoke culture” is predictably provocative but somewhat humorless (as she admits) and weirdly unbalanced. “Karaoke culture” is defined as “the parading of the anonymous ego with the help of simulation games. Today people are more interested in flight from themselves than discovering their authentic self . . . The possibilities of transformation, teleportation, and metamorphosis hold far more promise than digging the dirt of the self. The culture of narcissism has mutated into karaoke culture–or the latter is simply a consequence of the former.”
There are reasonable counterarguments to this blanket conservative charge, as well as to Andrew Keen’s assertion that the Internet enshrines the rule of the amateur, but we don’t read about any of them. Perhaps imaginative play through the use of technology is not as disconnected from shaping the self as Ugresic suggests–a familiarity with Modernism may not be a slam dunk guarantee of an authentic self. Ugresic confuses her admirably unyielding stand as a moralist with the necessarily more nuanced position of a cultural critic who needs to take account of other arguments, if only to be intellectually responsible. Frankly, dealing with serious objections would also strengthen her case.
But those who suspect, as does Ugresic, that karaoke, drugs, and technology are turning us into zombies will derive validation (guilty pleasure for the rest of us) from The Hall of the Singing Caryatids by Victor Pelevin (translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, New Directions, 96 pages, $9.95). The mountainous heaps of corruption in the Soviet Union obviously beggars the imagination: witness the final psycho-sexual, gay meltdown of the unsatisfying Day of the Oprichnik by Vladmir Sorokin. Pelevin’s zany horror tale is as outrageous and tasteless as the former, but its cartoon assault is more effective, maybe because there is no attempt to deal with political issues or organizations or to engage with the real world. Pelevin’s unholy marriage of high technology and sexual slavery, consumer society, and the deformation of the self, plays neatly within the confines of the story’s sick surreality.
The fable begins and ends in a polymorphously perverse techo-amusement park/bordello for the rich and powerful. Attractive, young women are transformed, via athletic training, sexual ointments, and experimental hallucinogenic drugs, into facsimilies of exotic creatures (mythic figures, animals, insects) designed for the far-far-out erotic satisfaction of men who can afford anything. The drug takes the impressionable Lena, who stands on a pedestal in Malachite Hall, on a trip that stops at the “praying mantis” god, who talks her into a perverse form of worship.
Pelevin conveys this otherworldly encounter with a disconcerting nonchalance:
The praying mantis appeared in front of her soon after she climbed up the pedestal and set her hands against the upper block of malachite. This time Lena could see his head far more distinctly than usual. She noticed little notches in the antennae that protruded from the region of the central eyes. And now the real world—the Malachite Hall and her friends standing on the other pedestals—seemed blurred and approximate.
Call it salacious sci-fi satire, a fable of futuristic homicide at the null point of desire.