"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 21, 2014

"The Newton Letter" by John Banville (1982)

The Newton Letter (1982) is an exquisite novella by John Banville, written in an enigmatic and often cryptic style, about a historian who discovers he is wrong in the interpretation of his relations with others and the world around him, which in its turn brings on a crisis of faith in his work as a historian.

[Sir Isaac Newton - Portrait Wikipedia]

The nameless narrator of The Newton Letter is a historian somewhere in his fifties who has spent seven years writing a book about Isaac Newton. Seeking a quiet place to finish his work, he rents a small cottage at an estate in southern Ireland known as Fern House. Gradually, he neglects his studies as he becomes involved with the family on whose property he is living: the tall, middle-aged Charlotte Lawless, who has a noble but rather abstracted air, and occupies herself with gardening; her husband Edward, a clumsy and inarticulate man who is often drunk; and Otillie, Charlotte's niece, a big, blonde and somewhat graceless woman in her mid-twenties. There is also Michael, the son of Edward and Charlotte, who as later appears has been adopted and whose real mother may be (or not) Otillie.

A rather hot and heavy physical relationship develops with Otillie, but the narrator doesn't feel in love with her and gradually realizes that he is in fact obsessed with the withdrawn and mysterious Charlotte. But he can't get any closer to Charlotte - when he speaks of his love, she is so distracted that she does not hear what he says.

The point is of course that the narrator has got everything wrong about this family. With remarkable skill Banville shows how his imagined history of them is undermined by successive, incremental discoveries of the rather common reality of their lives. This also undermines the authority of the historian's voice with which he has started the tale - he obviously has deduced too much from faint clues. Eventually it brings on a shock that will make him abandon his Newton project and suddenly leave Fern House.

The Newton Letter is a postmodern work in that it references another famous novel which is similarly organized around a structural metaphor drawn from the sciences: Elective Affinities by Johann Wolfgang Goethe (see my post about this novel). Charlotte, Ottilie and Edward share their names with the three main characters of Goethe's novel, and Banville's narrator plays the role of the fourth character, the Major, - the one who stirs things up.

[John Banville - Photo Wikipedia]

Newton is of course the scientist who discovered the laws of gravity and laid the foundation for classical mechanics  (as a small joke the family of Fern House carries the surname of "Lawless"), but who also in later life turned to the study of biblical chronology and alchemy. The narrator of The Newton Letter believes that the turning point, the breakdown, where Newton gave up science, can be found in an anomalous letter Newton wrote in 1693 to John Locke (the letter is mentioned in the novel, but not cited - in fact, Newton only plays a role as a distant background). Banville stresses that turn-around by the invention of a second Newton letter, in which the scientist abandons the absolutes of time, space and motion, leaving his universe open and ambiguous - just as open and ambiguous as John Banville's novella. At the same time, the reason why the narrator-historian abandons his Newton book, may be that from personal experience he now realizes the danger of making large inferences from small clues such as the original letter by Newton to Locke.

The Newton Letter is a concise but intricate and allusive work that demands the reader's careful and thoughtful attention. It has been written in lyrical, but also very precise prose.

Interestingly, the novella itself has been written in the form of a letter to a person called Clio - and not accidentally, Clio is the muse of history.

The Newton Letter by John Banville has been published by Picador.

August 16, 2014

"The Black Spider" by Jeremias Gotthelf (1842)

While the English in the 19th century were churning out unwieldy, three volume novels because the market in the shape of the omnipresent lending libraries demanded it, the Germans (and others writing in the German language) were free to pursue shorter forms, such as the novella. And indeed, the novella flourished in Germany and many of the best works of the 19th century are exquisite stories of novella length.

One of the best novellas was written by a Swiss pastor writing under the pseudonym Jeremias Gotthelf (his real name was Albert Bitzius): The Black Spider (Die schwarze Spinne), dating from 1842. The Black Spider is a horror story imbued with Christian mythology.

[Basler-Kopp: Die Schwarze Spinne - Wikipedia]

The story starts with a frame tale: a christening is being celebrated in a smart farmhouse in a Swiss village. It is a beautiful day and the guests are enjoying the food and drink. Then one guest notes that a blackened, old post has been built into a new window frame of the farm house. He asks the reason for this anomaly and a wise grandfather who has always lived in the house, proceeds to tell the tale behind this phenomenon. It is a chilling story and the audience listens in appalled silence.

Centuries ago, a cruelly overbearing manor lord asked an impossible service of the villagers, to plant the lane in front of his castle with scores of trees that had to brought from a far-away mountain, and that all in a very short time. When the villagers were discussing their oppressive burden, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and green hunting hat came by and offered his help. The villagers were wary of the uncanny man, but when he repeated his offer to Christine, a strong and willful woman, she accepted on their behalf. There was of course a pay-off, a terrible one: the villagers would have to give the first new-born baby to the hunter, before it was baptized. To seal the deal, the mysterious man - who was none other than Satan - gave Christine a kiss on her cheek. 

And he kept his word: using his demonic powers he transported the trees in no-time from the mountain side to the castle - and then asked for his reward. But Christine and the farmers cheated on him: as soon as a child was born, the priest immediately baptized it so that it was saved from the clutches of the devil. But at the same time Christine felt a burning pain on her cheek: where the hunter had kissed her, a black spot appeared that grew larger and larger, and finally changed into a black spider. When next again a child was saved by immediately baptizing it, the black spot broke open and countless small black spiders escaped into the village, where they killed the cattle and also attacked humans. 

Things got worse. Christine tried to stop the spider plague by taking the next baby to the mysterious hunter, but was stopped in her tracks by the priest who again baptized it just in time with holy water. Christine who had been touched by the same water, shrank away and turned into a huge black spider, killing the priest and setting upon the villagers. 

I won't divulge how this disaster is finally averted - how the spider is caught and pushed into a hole in the black old pillar, which is then safely locked behind a piece of wood. But human beings are innately stupid - a few centuries later a curious person lets out the spider and the same disaster is repeated. Will the villagers this time be more wise and leave evil alone? 

The Black Spider is an unforgettably creepy tale that is as appalling today as when it was written in the mid-19th century. It is a parable of good and evil, in which evil is painted in glaring colors - both evil in the heart of human beings and evil rampant in society. It is also a vision of cosmic horror in the style of Lovecraft, or, as Thomas Mann interpreted it, as a sort of foretelling of the horrors of Nazism. 

The German original can be found at Wikisource; an English translation by Susan Bernofsky can be found in New York Review Books

August 13, 2014

"The Island of Dr. Moreau" by H.G. Wells (1896)

Early in his career H.G. Wells wrote the six "scientific romances" for which he today is known in the first place - his later, realistic novels are all but forgotten, as are his short stories (in both cases, this is at least in part unjustified). But in fact, many of these early SF novellas carry strong political or sociological messages, like his later work that was often inspired by socialism. They are not the pure entertainment or escapism that Hollywood makes of them in its many empty movie versions. In The Time Machine, for example, Wells is not so much interested in the time machine in itself (or how it works), but he wanted to show his readers how the industrial relations of his day - with haves and have-nots - could in the future very well develop in two different races of man, the "lower" one literally living below the earth. It was his originality to bring a time traveler on stage to show that future.

[H.G. Wells - Photo Wikipedia]

It was not the scientific argument that is important to Wells, he was not interested in connecting the lines of technological development towards the feature, but he used his romances in the first place for political and sociological commentary, or to try out a philosophical hypothesis: what would happen, if... This in contrast to Jules Verne, who did make future scientific developments the focus of his books (although Verne's "science" is often quite faulty). Happily, Wells also could tell a good story and he was never preachy.

The best and most genuinely horrific of these early novellas is in my view The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), because here the message is more generalized: a warning against scientific hubris and a parable on Darwinian theory.

The problem that Dr. Moreau tempted to solve was: "Can we by surgery (vivisection) so accelerate the evolutionary process as to make man out of a beast in a few days or weeks?"

The narrator, Edward Prendick, is shipwrecked and rescued by a passing boat that carries a very unusual cargo - a menagerie of savage animals. Their keeper Montgomery nurses him back to health, but Prendick is worried by Montgomery's weird servant, who seems to have animalistic qualities. Prendick is taken to the ship's destination, an uncharted Pacific island, where he is introduced to Montgomery's master, the sinister Dr. Moreau - a questionable scientist earlier chased out of England for torturing animals in notorious experiments in vivisection. As Prendick now gradually learns, Dr. Moreau has perfected surgical techniques by which he can accelerate evolution. Under Dr Moreau's Darwinian scalpel, animals are painfully raised to quasi-humanity. With the assistance of Montgomery, who is an outlawed medical student, Dr Moreau has succeeded in producing some creditable parodies of humanity by his operations on pigs, bulls, dogs and even panthers. These hyena-swine and mutant ape-men walk on their hind legs, have mastered rudimentary language, and can even be taught to do simple work as servants. But when Prendick sits in the room to which he has been confined, he hears the most terrible cries of tortured animals from the doctor's lab. Not able to sit still, he ventures outside the compound, although that has been strictly forbidden as too dangerous.

In the jungle, Prendick stumbles upon a colony of the beastly creations of the sadistic doctor: the cut up and remolded creatures (Dr. Moreau fits parts of different animals together) somehow have the appearance and intelligence of humans, but are unstable in the sense that they have to be maintained at that level by the exercise of discipline and the constant recital of "the Law" (a sort of Ten Commandments forbidding animal-type behavior). When they are completely left to themselves they gradually revert to the habits and manners of the individual beasts out of which they have been carved. They may never drink blood, as that would make them revert immediately to animal status. If one of them happens to show animal behavior, the poor beast will be carried off to Dr. Moreau's lab, something which they fear very much because of the sadistic infliction of pain that takes place there. The doctor on purpose performs his painful operations without the use of anesthesia - a way of keeping his creatures in check by making them afraid of pain. In other words, this hybrid race is being kept in check by fear... and as happens in dictatorial situations, they worship Doctor Moreau like a god - their cruel God.

Of course, one day things go wildly wrong - Dr. Moreau is killed by a puma he is operating on in particularly cruel way, the prohibitory laws are disobeyed, the difficult equilibrium breaks down, and in open rebellion the hybrids revert to their original nature.

This is a haunting tale, where also the doctor's strange creations are not simply monsters, but in the first place victims and where even the mad doctor is not so much a through-and-through bad guy as a misguided scientist whose technology runs ahead of morality. That is something that still happens today, making Well's story with its moral that technology itself can be problematic, still valid for us. And above all the story poses the important question what it means to be human - and shows us how inhuman it is to use violence on animals. To close with a quote from another author, Milan Kundera:
"...animals have accompanied human life since time immemorial. Facing his neighbor, man is never free to be himself; the power of the one limits the freedom of the other. Facing an animal, man is who he is. His cruelty is free. The relation between man and animal constitutes an eternal background to human life, a mirror (a dreadful mirror) that will never leave it."   [From Encounter, Essays, by Milan Kundera, p. 177, published by Faber and Faber] 
P.S. By the way, two years after the publication of The Island of Dr. Moreau the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was founded.
Read The Island of Dr. Moreau on the internet, or download it in epub or kindle format. There is an edited and annotated edition available in Penguin Books.

August 10, 2014

"The Gate of Angels" by Penelope Fitzgerald (1990)

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) has been called a writers writer - she wrote extremely fine novels which however have not been embraced by a wider group of readers (real quality is after all only valued by connoisseurs). Penelope Fitzgerald only started writing novels when she was past sixty and over two decades managed to create an exquisite oeuvre of nine novels and two short story collections. Her most famous work is perhaps The Blue Flower about a love affair of the 18th-century German poet and philosopher Novalis (see my post about this novel).

[Penelope Fitzgerald - Photo Wikipedia]

The Blue Flower has some uncanny elements, which are lacking in The Gate of Angels, a novel set at Cambridge University in 1912, when the modern age and modern science are knocking on the venerable doors of its lecture halls. The world was about to change from a world governed by god into a universe governed by the laws of physics.

Fred Fairly, a junior fellow at the (fictional) College of St. Angelicus, is happy about that - he believes that science will soon explain everything. Reason will conquer the mysteries of the world and the demands of the soul will be seen for what they in fact are: a distraction. Fred is a pure scholar, a country vicar's son who has lost his faith, and his whole life is filled with science. He has no girlfriend and, anyway, the College he happens to belong to does not allow its fellows to marry (it was founded long ago by monks). Women are also not allowed inside the college.

Then Daisy Saunders, a working girl, comes into his life. They are accidental fellow cyclists on a dark country road and get involved in a freakish accident with a horse-drawn farm cart. Both unconscious victims are taken in by a family living close to the place of the accident, and so the virginal Fred finds himself in one and the same bed with Daisy - he has never been so close to a woman before, and also never has met one so outspoken and at the same time, so mysterious (she wears a wedding ring, which is the reason why they are put in the same bed, but as she explains later, the ring was a fake which served to ward off aggressive males during her commutes in London, where she worked as a nurse). The nurse-business also means she knows what a man looks like, and has no false shame. Although they are from very different walks of life (England was still a strict class society in 1912) and an accident was necessary to bring them together, Fred is smitten with her. Unfortunately, the next morning she is gone, and Fred starts a frantic search for her - at which a satisfying plot unfolds, with some nice mysteries to be solved, and a finale that has been taken from the traditions of the comedy (the end seems open, but in fact is not - Fitzgerald rightly skips spelling out the obvious).

There is a strong postmodern feel to this novel,  a delicious playing with conventions. The most interesting of these is the presence of one Dr. Matthews, an antiquarian and Cambridge scholar who is clearly modeled on M.R. James, who also happened to be a famous writer of ghost stories.

[M.R. James - Photo Wikipedia]

M.R. James was a conservative Christian who was even against women entering Cambridge University. In the present novel, in the guise of Dr. Mathews he represents those who believe in the soul and the unseen and he even entertains us with an original ghost story - a ghost lurking close to the place of the cycle accident. The presence of this conservative scholar gives Fitzgerald the opportunity to address the position of women and the struggle in which they were engaged early in the 20th century to be allowed to go to university and have the same rights as men.

Fred Fairly in fact works under a professor who is skeptic about the atom and any other "unobservables," bringing the dichotomy between what can be seen with the eyes and what not, also inside the walls of academia. Working with "unobservables" will lead to randomness and ultimately chaos, the conservative science professor believes. On the other hand, Fred who has no belief, at a debating club has to argue the opposite of what he believes, and makes an excellent case for the separate existence of the mind. But he also is interested in atoms, and in fact, his random collision with Daisy is like a collision of subatomic particles in a physicist's laboratory.

And then the "Gate of Angels." This is the name of the gate of Fairly's St. Angelicus College, and at the end of the novel Daisy enters it by mistake and therefore is able to save the life of the Master of the College, who has fallen down in the courtyard because of a sudden heart attack. So she becomes a saving angel - and the random delay saves her happiness.

The Gate of Angels is published by Fourth Estate, London.

August 8, 2014

"The Golovlyov Family" by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1880)

There exists one great 19th century Russian novel almost nobody knows. I am not talking of Oblomov, which by now is reasonable famous, but about The Golovlyov Family (Gospoda Golovlyovy), a novel written by the satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. Note that the writer, who was also a civil administrator and magazine editor, was called Mikhail Saltykov (1826-1889), but used the pen name "Shchedrin." Those two names are therefore often coupled with a hyphen, but the author can also be called just by his pen name as "Shchedrin."

[Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, portrait from Wikipedia]

The Golovlyov Family is one of the darkest Russian novels ever written. It tells the story of a land-owning family, in three generations, that destroys itself before the reader's eyes. Why? Because they waste their lives in pettiness, stinginess, faked religiousness and, finally, vodka. The lives of all characters in this novel are meaningless and pointless. They all die miserably, almost one per chapter.

The place where they live is just as desolate as their lives: an endless and dreary plain, full of mud, far from civilization. It either rains or snows. The house of the Golovlyovs is like the land: gloomy and depressing. There is also nothing to do here, life is one stretch of unrelieved boredom, the characters are just vegetating. One by one the family members fail in their endeavors in the outside world, and are sucked back to the remote estate, only to perish in misery.

Everything in the novel is related to the family's decay, an unrelieved catalog of mistrust, misdeeds and wretchedness. No opportunity for meanness is missed. The core of the novel consists of a series of conversational duels between the main characters, where they try to manipulate each other. Shchedrin has paid much attention to these dialogues: the speech of each character has its own genuine flavor.

There was frequent discussion about nihilism in the works of, for example, Turgenev and Dostoevsky, but one could say that The Golovlyov Family shows nihilism in operation. Or rather, what we find here is not even nihilism (as a philosophy), it just total emptiness, the absence of any values. It is the absolute void. And it is from this emptiness that evil is born, rather than from any "positive" maliciousness.

Besides the matriarch, Arina Petrovna Golovlyov (who is a tough sort of tyrant, controlling the estate with an iron hand, while treating here own children and others in a mean and stingy way - and who becomes a sort of King Lear after she releases power), Shchedrin's most original creation is Porphyry, one of her sons - nicknamed "Little Judas (Iudushka)," he is surely the greatest hypocrite in world literature. Porphyry is an unfeeling wretch who babbles on all the time in self-righteous and pseudo-pious talk, about family, work or duty, He can't keep his mouth shut for a moment. He continually calls on God to sanction all his misdeeds and lies spontaneously, without principles. He just prattles on in verbal incontinence and this useless prattle has smothered his feelings. His words have no meaning, because Porphyry has no morals, something which is made clear when we see his indifference to the suicide of his son and the suffering of others. In contrast to hypocrites in the French sense, like Tartuffe, who pretend to lead a proper life while playing the seducer when nobody watches, this is a Russian type of hypocrite, as Shchedrin tells us: one who thrives in the absence of fundamental principles.

When all this may seem off-putting, The Golovlyov Family is, on the contrary, a great read. It is a grim comedy, written in an intense style. Shchedrin is indeed a very accomplished author, whose lively novel is a strong protest against the greed, hypocrisy, falsehood, treachery and stupidity he saw around him.
The Golovlyov Family has been published by New York Review Books, in a translation by Natalie Duddington.

August 6, 2014

"The Skin" by Curzio Malaparte (1944)

When you like Celine, you may also like the Italian author Curzio Malaparte, who wrote the same type of delirious and amoral prose about war, destruction and degradation. And just as in the case of Celine, you need a strong stomach and a very thick skin to survive this verbal onslaught. The Skin contains many passages of savage invective and toxic stereotypes and is a sustained assault on every kind of piety and political correctness. When it was published in 1944, The Skin was immediately placed on the index of prohibited books maintained by the Vatican. Recently, New York Review Books have published the first complete and unadulterated English edition.

[Curzio Malaparte - Photo Wikipedia]

The Skin (La Pelle) is a near-novel, a mixture of autobiography, reportage and fantastical elements. The narrator has the same name as the author (but is of course not the same, although it remains unclear how much both differ in their opinions) and is an Italian liaison officer working in 1943 with the Americans at the time of the liberation of Naples - the first major city in Italy and in Europe to be liberated by the Allied forces. His friend and colleague is Jack, an American colonel who likes to speak French as often as he can. The novel is a surrealistic tale about the degradation of values in Naples, where everything is for sale after the city has been liberated by the Allied forces (a universal human trait).

The title refers to Malaparte's comment that once people have lost all spiritual values, they are only out to save their own skin. 
“Our skin, this confounded skin... you've no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin . . . They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone.”
The fact that Malaparte works with the Americans provides ample room for intercultural comparisons, unfailingly given with a lot of smirking irony. The Americans are innocent, simple-minded, blandly Christian, optimistic and generous, but also shallow and uncultivated, while the Italians despite their hunger and squalor feel culturally superior. Malaparte praises the Americans so much that his overdone praise and false admiration change into pure irony. He in fact sees them as a plague — a moral plague that sweeps Naples like the terrible illness of the body in the Middle Ages.

Much of the bad state of affairs in Naples is caused by the unholy combination of a victorious army in a city where everyone is poor and literally starving. It is like a seething ruin filled with jackals. So countless women fall into prostitution, not only from the city but from everywhere in Italy - there is a long line of women traipsing to Naples to earn a few dollars. The ideal situation is to have your daughter entice a soldier to your home, where he will shower everyone with canned foods, chocolate and other delicacies. There exists a fierce competition for soldiers. Catching an American soldier means food and dollars. The population stages a frantic show of welcoming the liberating army, “singing, clapping, jumping for joy amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the day before had been emblems of their foes.”

There are many surreal scenes in the book. Malaparte comes across a place where they make blonde wigs, because African-American soldiers like to embrace a blonde woman. But the wigs have a hole in the middle and are not meant to be worn on the head... Mothers stand in line to sell their young sons to North-African soldiers, a veritable meat market. In intense language, Malaparte describes all the indignities and desperation of the fight for life.

In one particularly surreal chapter, rare fish are served on silver platters to assembled officers and their important guests at a banquet. It appears those fish have been removed from the Naples aquarium, as it is impossible to fish in the bay because of the presence of mines. One of the fish encircled with a wreath of coral is a "siren fish" and looks suspiciously like the body of a young child - horror straight out of Dali. The diners suddenly feel ill and have the dish removed.

Another unreal scene occurs when Malaparte recounts an earlier experience he had during the war (he could travel rather freely through Axis-controlled territory as a journalist for a major Italian newspaper). In the summer of 1941 he traveled on horseback in the Ukraine, through a countryside infested by gangsters and marauders. Towards evening he rides through a deep forest and hears eerie voices calling out to him from above. Looking up, he sees that men are hanging crucified on all the trees along his path. They snarl at the pity he shows, some even beg to be shot. They are Jews, and this is one of the many undocumented pogroms that took place all over Eastern Europe. The next day, Malaparte has to return along the same route. He listens for voices, but the forest is strangely quiet. Looking up, he sees that crows are sitting on the shoulders of the crucified men...

[Villa Malaparte on Capri - Photo Wikipedia]

Malaparte owned a famous house in Capri, situated on a promontory overlooking the Mediterranean, which he designed himself between the years 1938 and 1942. It has been called the most beautiful house in the world and was used by Godard as a location for his film Le Mepris (Contempt) - with an iconic scene of Brigitte Bardot sunbathing on the large, flat roof with its pyramidal stone steps. The house also features in The Skin, where the anecdote is told of a visit to the house by the German Field Marshal Rommel. The legendary "Desert Fox" asked if the author had designed the house himself. Malaparte pointed at the seascape, seen through the large windows, and answered: "I only did the scenery." When Rommel left, he kept glancing back suspiciously, apparently feeling that his leg had been pulled.

As if war alone is not enough, the book also contains a devastating eruption of the Vesuvius (which really took place in 1944) and some gruesome war scenes when the Allied army chases the Germans out of Rome and the northern Italian cities. When they reach Florence, an Italian man overjoyed to see the liberators, rushes towards the convoy and is crushed beneath the caterpillar wheels of a Sherman tank. What is left over, is so flat that it seems as if both clothes and skin have been neatly ironed. Malaparte remembers another similar occasion, where bystanders took part of the skin of the flattened man and waved it in the sky like a flag - another reference to the title of the novel.

And as everywhere in Europe, accounts are settled as soon as the occupied cities have been liberated. A group of partisans has cornered a number of teenage boys, followers of Mussolini, and gloatingly kill them off, the blood splashing down the steps of the church where the massacre takes place. Malaparte also sees Mussolini hanging by his feet from a hook, “bloated, white, enormous.”

The book is full of such cruel anecdotes, told with a combination of irony, disgust and grim playfulness.

Malaparte ("Bad Side," an ironic reflection on the name "Bonaparte") was born Kurt Erich Suckert (1898-1957) from an Italian mother and German father. He fought in WWI and in the 1920s became a sympathizer of Mussolini, whom he joined in the march on Rome. Along with many in the European avant-garde, Malaparte embraced fascism because of its celebration of violence. After having experienced WWI, he saw death and destruction as something beautiful, a dangerous sentiment which paved the way for the outrages and terrible crimes of the Fascists and the Nazis.

But Malaparte was also a strong individualist who could not feel at home in any mass movement (and, it should be said, he probably was also a slippery opportunist) and from around 1933 he seems to have offended Mussolini with his independence of opinion and suffered several years of banishment. Later he was allowed to continue his journalistic work (for example, traveling to the Eastern front with the German army), but continued to be viewed with suspicion. And when the Allied Forces arrived in Naples, Malaparte effected a major shift in loyalty and joined the victors as a liaison officer - just like his alter ego, the Malaparte in The Skin.

Besides The Skin, Malaparte also wrote the novel Kaputt about his wartime experiences in the years immediately before 1943 - a book that is just as strong. Both were long neglected because of Malaparte's obnoxious association with Fascism. But in these two novels, perhaps thanks to his peculiar and ambiguous position, Malaparte manages to give an authentic picture of the cruel chaos of wartime Europe from an unusual viewpoint.

The Skin was translated by David Moore and has been published by New York Review Books. The same publisher also brought out a translation of Kaputt.

July 31, 2014

"Doctor Glas" by Hjalmar Söderberg (1905)

Doctor Glas (1905) is arguably the greatest Swedish novel - its author, Hjalmar Söderberg, the novelistic equivalent of August Strindberg. The astonishing novel tells a story of the fatal obsession of a single man for a married woman, of a physician for one of his patients. The story takes the form of a fictional diary that describes four months in the life of Doctor Glas, living in Stockholm somewhere at the beginning of the twentieth century.

[Stockholm - Photo Wikipedia]

Doctor Tyko Glas is a lonely, reserved and introspective man, who is not very fond of other people (including his patients). He is settled in his profession, but has no particular love for it, calling it "the one which suits him least out of all possible trades." Doctor Glas is already over thirty years old, but still unmarried - even more than that, he has "never been with a woman." In fact, the physical aspects of sexual intercourse strike him as rather repulsive. He vaguely desires marriage, but when Miss Mertens, a young woman in town, approaches him pro-actively, he retreats into himself.

This particular summer he is kept occupied with the problems of two of his patients, Mr and Mrs Gregorius. The Reverend Gregorius is a 57-year old minister, a rather nasty and repulsive person in the opinion of Doctor Glas; while Mrs Gregorius is a lovely young woman, about half the age of the Reverend. Mrs Gregorius comes to Doctor Glas with the following problem: her husband's sexual advances have become so odious to her that she can't bear them any longer - can the doctor help her by pretending to the Reverend that his wife suffers from a pelvic disease and that he must avoid intercourse with her for several months, for the sake of her health?

Doctor Glas agrees, but the Reverend is not so easily put off. God has given man the task to procreate, and he is only trying to do his Christian duty (no lust involved here)! Moreover, there is such a thing as "marital rights..." (for men, not for women, apparently).

Mrs Gregorius again and again visits Doctor Glas and they devise a new and stronger strategy: this time the doctor pretends with the necessary theatricals that he "discovers" that the Rev Gregorius has a weak heart and must abstain from all strenuous effort - especially intercourse - on penalty of suffering a fatal heart attack. This warning works for a time...

[Hjalmar Söderberg - Photo Wikipedia]

Meanwhile, as summer progresses, Doctor Glas has fallen in love with Mrs Gregorius, who is a strong and interesting personality. But there is one problem: he discovers she has a lover, a handsome young businessman, whom she meets for secret trysts. But Glas can't help himself, his love for his patient becomes stronger and stronger, and he becomes a tortured person, as he must keep silent to her about his feelings and knows his love will never be requited...

The book has some ruminations on abortion and euthanasia, which were modern for the time the book was written and considered as "scandalous," although now they are quite ordinary. But, happily, this is not a novel of ideas, the ideas are there only to bring out the story. For example, when a patient asks Dr Glas for an abortion, he refuses, citing some high moral principles - and he thinks he is vindicated when he hears she has married and born a son... until, cynically, he later learns that the child is mentally retarded. But the hypocrisy of his position (or the measure of his infatuation with Mrs Gregorius) is shown clearly when he imagines what he would do in case Mrs Gregorius would become pregnant from her lover - of course, he would undertake an abortion, for her sake...

In his obsession, Dr Glas finally contemplates one further step, something which Mrs Gregorius has never required from him: to poison the minister with a cyanide pill, which will look like a heart attack... He soothes his conscience by telling himself that this would be part of his duty as a doctor, as it would help alleviate his patient Mrs Gregorius' suffering (and it would rid the world of an odious specimen). Glas is obsessed by the idea to free Mrs Gregorius from the oppressive sexual attentions of her husband, and there is a strong element of personal jealousy and rivalry involved here (the odious older man with the beautiful young woman, beast and beauty). At the same time, Glas knows there is no hope, for Mrs Gregorius sees nothing in him, she just treats him like a trusted adviser, but as lovers go, she prefers quite another type of man...

This all leads to a gripping intense ending, but no final resolution: Dr Glas is alone and will remain alone. "Life has passed me by," he concludes.

The novel is not all darkness. Doctor Glas is also a great flaneur who loves to take daily walks through Stockholm, making the water city almost a second protagonist of the novel. Hjalmar Söderberg has given us lively vignettes of life in the great northern city, and among the friends and acquaintances Doctor Glas meets are characters from his earlier novel, Martin Birck's Youth.

Doctor Glas is a searing literary masterwork, still completely fresh and vivid, as on the day more than a century ago that it was written.

Read the original Swedish text here. English translation by Paul Britten Austin (Anchor Books, 2002)

July 27, 2014

"The Day of the Owl" by Leonardo Sciascia (1961)

On the surface, the Italian novel The Day of the Owl is a first-class thriller, a police procedural in which a murder is solved. But appearances can be deceptive - this is not a genre novel and the author Leonardo Sciascia (1921-89; pronounced "sha-sha") far transcends the bounds of the usual crime novel. His book, written around 1960, is an indictment of the activities of the Italian mafia on Sicily and the roaring silence which at that time protected the gangster organization. The book's final aim is a moral one, rather than pure entertainment.

A man runs to catch a bus in the piazza of a small Sicilian town. A shot rings out, the man falls down. The bus driver tries hard not to notice anything, all the passengers who are already in the bus, quickly get off and disappear. When the carabinieri arrive, they can only question a fritter-seller, who stood near the spot where the man was murdered. "Has there been a shooting?" the fritter-seller asks quasi innocent (although the gun went off more or less next to his ears), like all the others pretending not to have seen anything in order not to become involved. The murdered man is the owner of a small construction company who was too honest to cooperate with the mafia (his brothers and co-owners of course also know nothing), and he has been killed with a lupara, a sawed-off shotgun that was the typical weapon of the mafia.

[A lupara, sawed-off shotgun as used by Casa Nostra for its killings - Photo Wikipedia]

The police officer in charge of the case is Captain Bellodi, a north Italian and an honest, incorruptible man. To Sicilians he is therefore a foreigner, a total outsider. So also his interrogation technique: instead of using force to obtain a confession - the normal method on the island - he intricately questions the suspects and tries to capture them in an inconsistency - like Commissaire Maigret. Initially, Bellodi is up against a wall of silence, but his technique works and he is able to force a breach in the wall which will allow him to find both the criminal and the puppet master behind the scenes.

But politics is against him. We get small chapters with discussions by unnamed politicians in Rome, who carefully monitor the investigation and are afraid Belloni is going too far - the politicians want to protect the man behind the scenes. Their single concern is to keep the truth from coming out. Because, as they say, of course there is no such thing as the mafia on Sicily...

Sciascia's novels, especially The Day of the Owl, showed differently and finally made it possible to discuss the problem of the mafia in Italy. As Sciascia says in the novel: "The only institution that really counts in Sicily is the family... The State is extraneous to them, merely a de facto entity based on force; an entity imposing taxes, military service, war, police..." Law is not rational but "something depending on persons, on the thoughts and moods of this man here, on the cut he gave himself shaving or a good cup of coffee he has just drunk."

This short, beautifully paced novel is a mesmerizing description of the mafia at work and a sharp tale of Sicilian corruption. The title is based on a quote from Shakespeare's Henry VI:
And he that will not fight for such a hope
Go home to bed, and like the owl by day
If he arise, be mocked and wondered at.

[Leonardo Sciascia - Photo Wikipedia]

Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989) was born in central Sicily. He first worked as a schoolteacher but starting in the 1950s, established himself as a novelist, essayist and controversial commentator on political affairs. Among his many other books are Equal Danger, To Each His Own, and the story collection The Wine-Dark Sea.
The Day of the Owl has been published by New York Review Books. Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun and Anthony Oliver.

July 23, 2014

Camus - L'Etranger (The Stranger, 1942)

Where the literary work of other existentialists as Sartre has fallen into obscurity (thank you, Mr Nabokov!), only Albert Camus (1913-1960) is still holding the tattered banner, perhaps due to the circumstance that his books are rather suitable for teaching in universities. I have recently read his famous novella L'Etranger (The Stranger or The Outsider) for a second time and was surprised how outdated this story now is. I wondered how it could still be so popular and a fixed item on every shortlist of best French novels (except for historical reasons)...

[Albert Camus - Photo Wikipedia]

Before I explain my opinion, first in a few sentences what the novel is about: Meursault is a young Frenchman living and working in colonial Algeria. He tells his own story, in a sort of minimalist, Hemingway-type "macho" tone. In the first part of the story we follow him as he goes to the funeral of his mother, visits the beach, and meets his girlfriend as well as other people who live in his apartment building. We notice that he does not care for others, nor for his job, and is not interested in anything whatsoever. Finally, he happens to murder an Arab young man, again for no obvious reason (a group of Arab youths has threatened his "pal," a neighbor from his apartment building, who apparently has acted as a "pimp" for the sister of one of them. But there was no reason for Meursault to become involved, as he was anyway indifferent towards this so-called "pal" as well). The second part is about Meursault's trial and subsequent death sentence. He is given the maximum punishment because he shows no regret about his deed (which he is unable and unwilling to explain) and his general behavior before the crime is interpreted as being devoid of normal human feelings. Meursault is not so much an outsider as someone who is truly a "stranger" to his own people.

Back to my criticism. With "outdated" I mean that the following three messages Camus tries to drive home with this book have today become irrelevant (as a philosophical novel, the book is more message than art, and therefore we should also judge it on its messages): (1) the world is meaningless and absurd (a general point of the existentialists), (2) social convention demands that people "play the game" and (3) an indictment of the death penalty, especially by the guillotine (Camus also wrote a famous essay about this topic).

Idea (1) is outdated because we know at least since the middle of the 19th century that there are no gods, that the universe has no higher purpose and that our existence (the evolution of conscious life) is just coincidence. Except for people born in an orthodox religious environment, there is nothing new about this statement anymore. It is a generally accepted fact of science and at least Europe has moved on.

Idea (2) is outdated because social conventions have changed and today people are free to be as egotistic and asocial as they want - as long as they don't hurt others. In case of a criminal trial, this attitude will in most parts of the world not lead to a more severe punishment.

Idea (3) is outdated because the death penalty has been abolished in the whole of the EU, making the "old continent" one of the most civilized parts of the world.

And I might add a fourth point where Camus is now outdated, this time through an omission: the fact that the murder central to the book happened in a colonial situation, where the killer was a French colonialist and the victim an Arab youth, is not addressed at all, something which today would be unthinkable.

Of course, the novel is so outdated because it is a novel of ideas. As soon as the ideas have become stale, the book degenerates into a museum piece. I therefore fully share Nabokov's often voiced objections against this type of literature!

But my greatest objection against the book is the character of Meursault - and this is an artistic point. Apparently, Camus wanted to depict an individual free from the bonds of religion and social custom, and brutally honest, but what he has given us is a man who has no inner life and who lives only by his instincts. While trying to depict a radically free individual, Camus has given us a man who is just like an animal, without any humanizing qualities. Meursault is not only unattractive, he is totally uninteresting. Who cares what happens to him?

I believe Camus made a mistake here. Based on his philosophy that the world is meaningless, he has depicted human life as meaningless, too. But he forgets the important point that human life can be given meaning by us - subjectively, when we make the effort - for example, by caring for others, by devotion to a job, by developing oneself, by interest in art and literature. "Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance," as Henry James said. It is up to us to discover the meaning of our lives. For, in this "absurd" universe, isn't consciousness a great wonder?

July 20, 2014

Bach Cantatas (51): Trinity XVIII

The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity. The readings if this Sunday concern the dual birthright of Jesus as the son of David and of God. The lines from Matthew also contain the "Great Commandment:" "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind," and also the second commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

There are two cantatas for this Sunday.

1 Corinthians 1:4–8, Paul's thanks for grace of God in Ephesus
Matthew 22:34–46, the Great Commandment


  • Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn, BWV 96, 8 October 1724

    Chorale: Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn
    Recitative (alto): O Wunderkraft der Liebe
    Aria (tenor, flute): Ach, ziehe die Seele mit Seilen der Liebe
    Recitative (soprano): Ach, führe mich, o Gott, zum rechten Wege
    Aria (bass, oboes, strings): Bald zur Rechten, bald zur Linken
    Chorale: Ertöt uns durch dein Güte

    ("Lord Christ, the only son of God") This chorale cantata starts with a sparkling opening chorus in a lilting meter based on the hymn "Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn" from 1524 by Elisabeth Kreutziger. Although originally an Epiphany hymn praising Christ as the Morning Star (as in Cantata BWV 1), it also has a traditional association with the 18th Sunday after Trinity since the readings of that day deal with Christ's discussion with the Pharisees about the meaning of phrase "Son of David." An unusual element is the flauto piccolo accompaniment twinkling above the musical texture - of course, this symbolizes the morning star which appeared to the Magi above a pastoral landscape. The alto sings the cantus firmus, and not the soprano, to better set off the flauto piccolo. The light and charming da capo aria for tenor which follows after a short recitative is accompanied by a transverse flute (probably the same player as the flauto piccolo in Bach's time - he must have had an excellent flute player for these performances). The flute's ritornello melody provides most of the musical material for this aria. In the pompous, opera-style bass aria we have some musical painting: the words "Soon to the right, soon to the left my erring steps lean" (these are the lurching steps of the misguided soul) are illustrated by using jagged motifs and sudden switches between strings and the oboe choir. The closing chorale is a fine four-part harmonization.

  • Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV 169, 20 October 1726

    Arioso: Gott soll allein mein Herze haben
    Aria: Gott soll allein mein Herze haben
    Recitative: Was ist die Liebe Gottes
    Aria: Stirb in mir, Welt, und alle deine Liebe
    Recitative: Doch meint es auch dabei
    Chorale: Du süße Liebe, schenk uns deine Gunst

    ("God alone shall have my heart") Alto cantata, concluded by a chorale. The text sings about the love of God in the first five movements, the commandment to also love one's neighbor is expressed in a short recitative, leading to the chorale, which asks for assistance from the Holy Spirit. The cantata starts with a sinfonia based on the first two movements of Bach's E Major Clavier Concerto BWV 1053 (itself a reworking of a lost oboe concerto) - the keyboard part is here played by the organ (in Bach's own performance this would have been ably played by his son Carl Philip Emanuel). After an extended arioso, we have a gentle and beautiful alto aria "Gott soll allein mein Herze haben" accompanied by the organ and a simple continuo. The second alto aria "Stirb in mir, Welt, und alle deine Liebe" follows after a simple secco recitative. Here we find again a marvelous adaptation from the above mentioned concerto, with the voice attractively woven into the solo organ and the strings. Like the first alto aria, this is truly great music - it has been called a farewell to worldly life, but also a mystic contemplation of heavenly love. A straightforward chorale harmonization on the famous tune "Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist" brings in the chorus for the first time to close the cantata. Perhaps the most beautiful among Bach's four alto cantatas.