candide

THE SOT-WEED FACTOR BY JOHN BARTH

Vladimir Nabokov called Don Quixote a story of hideous cruelty. While I think that this statement is horribly reductive and does the great and beautiful and moving novel a huge disservice, one can still understand where he was coming from; on face value, the knight of the mournful countenance is a mentally disturbed old geezer who is beaten and tricked and taken advantage of. There is a strain of literature, perhaps beginning with Cervantes, that deals with the naive or foolish being put through the wringer. For our entertainment, no less. Indeed, this isn’t specific to novels, or even fiction. Look at TV programmes like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and its ilk; the most engrossing aspect of those shows is the opportunity to watch a bunch of idiots [who, we at least like to think, clearly underestimated the situation they have signed up for] being physically and mentally tortured.

Other notable examples of literature as hideous cruelty are Voltaire’s Candide, Honore de Balzac’s Lost Illusions, and the novel under review here. In fact, The Sot-Weed Factor is essentially what you would have if you had asked Voltaire or Cervantes to rewrite Lost Illusions, which, like Barth’s novel, deals with a budding poet being introduced to the savage ways of the world. I don’t think that is a coincidence; Barth was clearly paying homage to these great writers, not only by stealing their content but, perhaps most impressively of all, by aping their style:

Is man a savage at heart, skinned o’er with fragile Manners? Or is savagery but a faint taint in the natural man’s gentility, which erupts now and again like pimples on an angel’s arse?

So, yes, like Candide et al, the unfortunate Ebenezer Cooke encounters just about every form of misfortune within the pages of this book. The Sot-Weed Factor is near 800 pages long and so the misery and pain he suffers becomes as attritional and relentless as the sort served up in some kind of art house movie [Requiem for a Dream, maybe. Or Miike’s Audition]. And, yet, I must confess, that far from eliciting my sympathy I thought Cooke, in the beginning at least, a near insufferable, gratingly supercilious moron, and cynically licked my lips at the prospect of his downfall. This is maybe where Barth’s character differs from the characters we have been comparing him to; one roots for Quixote and Candide because we can relate to their aims, because we find them charming and romantic. Lucien is not quite so likeable, but, unlike Cooke, he doesn’t consider himself superior and is prepared to involve himself in the world [which ultimately leads to his ruin]. Ebenezer, on the other hand, is largely unsympathetic because he is so precious; and therefore one wants him to fail, one wants him to see the light, or recognise the truth of the world.

And then he does, and, miraculously, my opinion of the book and the character changed. It was somewhere around the halfway mark I realised that I was for the hapless poet, that I felt for him and his plight, that far from making him bitter, or even more pompous, the disasters that befall him make him more humane, more likeable, and ultimately heroic. What is most satisfying, most original, about The Sot-Weed Factor is this journey, is Ebenezer’s transformation, which is actually the inverse of Lucien’s; the more awful the world reveals itself as being, the more he wades into the slough of life, the more Ebenezer is normalised. In Lost Illusions, however, Lucien starts out full of optimism and humility, only to become corrupted. I liked Barth’s take on this more than Balzac’s; I like the idea that the reality of the world doesn’t have to leave you cynical and mean, but that experience, good and bad, can actually help to shape you in a positive way.

It would have been nice to have ended my review on that positive note, to be able to laud John Barth for bestowing upon America a novel that fills in, to some extent, a space on its bookshelf. Indeed, he has, to a large extent, given us the American novel that it had until this point lacked [with the notable exception of Huck Finn]. However, there is one aspect of the book that caused me some consternation, and it would be remiss of me not to mention it. There is, unfortunately, a lot of rape in The Sot-Weed Factor, and I have a hard time understanding its purpose. Certainly, the rape isn’t gratuitous, but that is almost worse; it is tossed off so frequently and matter-of-factly that I was made to squirm more than if he had laboured over it. At least when a rape scene is gratuitous the author is saying this is significant. Barth appears to use it as a kind of comic prop, and that bothered me immensely, because never, in my opinion, is rape funny. Rape has no comic potentiality. I really don’t give a fuck if that makes me seem humourless or overly-serious. I don’t buy, either, the argument that the author was merely showing us how life was in the 17th century. Was everyone running around madly raping each other in the 17th century? No. Barth was clearly having too much fun, creating scenes in which women are caught  – arse invitingly displayed – in the rigging of a ship, for that argument to convince.

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FATELESS BY IMRE KERTESZ

I’m not often proud of my brother. Much of the time, and in most circumstances, our personalities and values are very different. However, some time ago a friend of his tried to get him to watch one of those execution videos, in which some poor sod gets his head lopped off. And he refused, quite aggressively so, he told me; he wanted nothing to do with it. It occurred to me then that one thing my brother and I do have in common is an aversion to violence and suffering. Hold on, you’ll say, doesn’t everyone? No, I don’t think they do. Or certainly only an aversion to that which is directed at themselves. I believe that many normally functioning people – by which I mean people who are not dangerous criminals – are drawn to violence and other people’s suffering, they seek them out, at least at a safe distance. I’m sure there are complex reasons for why this is the case – most of which are, in my opinion, based around power and sex. I can imagine many of you shaking your head as you read this; I accept that this is not a popular view; yet to me it is undeniable; one only needs to look at the popularity of certain kinds of TV programmes, or films or books. Take the recent torture porn craze, films that amount to nothing more than 90 mins of people being butchered. And why do more people tune into the news the more horrific, the bigger the tragedy? Who, likewise, is watching all those murder documentaries? Murderers? Maniacs? I don’t think so. Who is reading all those brutal crime novels? The evidence is overwhelming, despite how uncomfortable the reality of it makes people feel. We – human beings – haven’t changed since large crowds gathered to watch public hangings, we just get our kicks in more subtle ways these days.

I think that this attraction to violence and suffering accounts for why many people appear to find Imre Kertesz’s Fateless [or Fatelessness, in another translation] boring or disappointing. Very few people will admit it, of course, but, in a number of the reviews I have read, there is a very real sense of expectations not having been met, without anyone actually truly giving voice to what these expectations were. I can tell you: these people expected grand horror. Fateless is a book about the holocaust, it is a partially autobiographical account of a young man’s experiences in some of the worst concentration camps. These disappointed readers wanted, perhaps sub-consciously, to read about the boy’s suffering, they wanted him to be severely psychologically and physically oppressed. Yet the book lacks these things, in large part, and therefore it is, I believe, for a certain kind of reader, a huge let-down.

For me, however, Fateless is amongst the most extraordinary books I have ever read. Indeed, one of the things I like about it is how novel it is, how, in essence, it does not conform to expectations. The horror is there, of course, because the holocaust was absolutely, undeniably horrific, so to side-step it completely is impossible, but it is nearly always in the background, is not lingered over. The book is a first person narrative, and the boy’s voice is detached, relentlessly ironic, and this creates a weird form of tension, because you know precisely what kind of awful things are happening around him and to him, but he seems, at least for the first two-thirds of the book, unable to see them. The boy isn’t stupid, nor particularly naïve, he just appears to take everything in his stride, to see the common-sense in, the rationale behind, everything.

FATELESS, (aka SORSTALANSAG), Aron Dimeny, Marcell Nagy, 2005, (c) Thinkfilm

[From the film adaptation of the book, directed by Lajos Koltai]

One of the most powerful, poignant and moving scenes takes place as Gyorgy and his friends arrive at Auschwitz and are seen by a doctor who divides the inmates into two groups on the basis of who is fit for work and who isn’t. The reader knows what this process is really about, of course, we know what the outcome will be for those unable to work, but Gyorgy, who at this stage does not, mentally joins in the selection process, justifying to himself or questioning the doctor’s decisions to pass or condemn his fellow man. Even when confronted by officers with whips he feels little more than discomforted or wary; and when he finally comes to understand what the crematoriums are for he barely raises an eyebrow.

Kertesz apparently once said that it was important to him that he did not present the holocaust as something in retrospect, as something that has already happened and is being commented on, but rather as something happening, as something being revealed bit by bit to the affected people. However, while I think that is both an interesting approach and one the author makes good use of, I don’t believe that it explains why this book is special. It suggests that Gyorgy would behave as expected [i.e. wringing his hands, beating his chest and wailing at the stars] once he understands what is happening, but he doesn’t. It is the boy’s voice, his take on events, that makes Fateless something of a masterpiece for me. Until I read the book I thought it impossible that anyone could bring a freshness to a subject I already knew a great deal about, but Kertesz does exactly that.

Fateless is, it is worth pointing out, also strangely funny. I have seen it compared to Candide by Voltaire, in which a character attempts to maintain a sunny, positive outlook in the face of every kind of disaster, and while I can see some of that in Kertesz’s novel, the humour is less slap-stick, is darker, more subtle and sophisticated; indeed, in tone it reminded me more of Gulliver’s Travels, or Kafka, it is similarly deadpan, so that one isn’t sure, at certain moments, whether one is meant to laugh or not. For example, when Gyorgy is moved to Buchenwald he sets off on a long description of the place, which sounds eerily like a holiday brochure or the script used by an estate agent who is showing you around a property you may wish to purchase, a property that isn’t of the highest calibre, of course. It would be possible to read this description and be slightly bewildered, because it is absurd, yet there is no doubt in my mind that the author is playing for laughs, albeit bitter laughs. There are, however, more obviously comedic moments, although these too are shot through with bitterness and a kind of searing irony, like when Gyorgy’s father is taken away:

“All the same, I thought, at least we were able to send him off to the labor camp, poor man, with memories of a nice day .”

Or when the boy describes one of the concentration camps as golden days indeed, or when he states, perhaps most movingly of all:

“I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp .”

In terms of style the novel is written in Kertesz’s recognisably overly-precise manner. He is a fan of clauses, that’s for sure, some of which do not make a great deal of sense to me, although you could put this down to a translation issue. The narrator is also, as with the author’s other work, pedantic, and partly because of this the sentences are inelegant, ugly even. Furthermore, Kertesz, much like Dostovesky, repeatedly uses certain words or phrases, such as ‘so to say’ and ‘somehow,’ which can make reading him laborious. However, lyrical is certainly not what the writer was gunning for here, so none of this is intended critically. One thing I would like to say, before I finish, is in response to the review by the usually excellent The Complete Review, which called Fateless something like the autobiography before the art [the art being Kertesz’s later novels]. I don’t agree with that at all. In fact, i think the opposite. Kertesz’s other novels – including Fiasco and Kaddish for an Unborn Child – despite many qualities to recommend them, are the imitation after the art. Fiasco is one part Beckett, one part Kafka and one part Bernhard; Kaddish is Beckett and Bernhard; Fateless, on the other hand, is all Kertesz, it is a singular vision.

WORLD LIGHT BY HALLDOR LAXNESS

If I were ever to compose a list of my favourite books Independent People by Halldor Laxness would stroll into my top ten with a shit-eating grin on its face. So, I was sure that I was going to love the Icelandic author’s other work, especially the epic [in girth, at least] World Light. And yet I don’t know what to make of the book at all. Indeed, if I was inclined to use them I’d be scouring the internet for a head-scratching gif right about now. Without doubt, parts of it are great and parts of it are beautiful, and yet, equally, parts of it are poorly executed and large parts of it are simply baffling.

The book is split into three sections. All of them are concerned with the poet Olafur Karason. The first section is a Hardy-ish tale of a poor child who is mistreated by his foster family. We first meet Olafur by the shore, mournfully staring into the sea, and it is quickly established that he is a sensitive boy who, physically and emotionally, cannot meet the demands of working on a farm or even those of interacting with the boorish people who have taken him in; he is, rather, more drawn to nature, in which, he believes, God manifests himself. Indeed, he comes to experience visions that he takes to be signs from God; moreover, he believes himself to be, in some not especially clear way, in communication with God. I’ve read elsewhere that people often find this first section hard-going, and what with all the religious chatter, and brutality and bullying, I can understand that to an extent. I think people tend to find that kind of thing oppressive. I quite enjoy it though; and if you like the aforementioned Hardy or Patrick White or even Knut Hamsun then you’ll probably find much to like here too.

The second section is where it all goes a bit bats. In fact, the tone of the work changes so abruptly that it is jarring to read. For most of the first section Olafur is in bed with an apparently fatal illness. He is miraculously cured of this illness towards the end of that section by what he takes to be some kind of magic elf. Yeah, you read that right: magic elf. From the point at which Olafur can walk again the book becomes a kind of episodic tale reminiscent of Don Quixote or Candide. In true episodic-novel fashion most of the characters are essentially one-dimensional, with one exaggerated personality trait or catchphrase or situation [for example, the man who Olafur sometimes finds dead drunk in the middle of the road], and seem to exist merely in order for the author to make satirical points about, or jabs at, society.

Of course none of that is particularly odd. What distinguishes World Light from other episodic novels, and indeed from its own first section, is just how baffling the behaviour of these characters is. So, while the characters in section one are hardly realistic in a Zola-like manner [they are, in fact, more like the kind of petty, stupid, evil bastards you’d find in a Roald Dahl novel], in section two they are utterly bewildering. Take, for example, the three most prominent female characters: one is the girl who summons or is a conduit for the magic elf; she periodically appears in order to make strange, nonsensical, declarations or demands; another girl falls in love with Olafur, gets pregnant, and yet one day suddenly ups and marries someone else; the third is an older woman, a poetess who burns all her poems, who, as far as I could understand it, is physically young on top but old on the bottom. And that’s only the tip of the, er, iceberg [so to speak].

Now, I like this kind of thing, generally speaking, so nothing I have written so far ought to be construed as major criticism. However, more of a problem is the sense I got that Laxness either wasn’t fully in control of his material or his attitude towards it was, um, lax. What I mean by that is there are numerous points across the two sections where things were mentioned or plot points were developed only for them to be forgotten or discarded without explanation. For example, whatever happened to Olafur’s visions? Not only does he stop communing with God in section two, he appears to almost completely lose his religious feeling. That would would be fine if it were at least justified in some way by the author but it isn’t; it is almost as though the Olafur of section two is a different character altogether from the one we met before. There were points at which I wondered whether I just wasn’t reading closely enough, or whether my concentration was poor, which happens sometimes, but these inconsistencies were too frequent for them all to be put down to that.

Despite being superficially a book about poetry and poets and the search for beauty, and so forth, World Light is, without a doubt, really a political novel. Yet, even in this there is a disconnect between sections one and two. In the beginning the politics are subtle; Olafur is, as mentioned previously, being fostered; the family are farmers and his upkeep is paid for by the parish [something that his family often mention and appear to resent]. So, whatever points Laxness was making about poverty or the working person were made in an organic fashion, as part of a story; Laxness’ message is shown to you, rather than told; and, in this way, you, as the reader, have to work a little bit to get at what he wants you to take away from the book. However, in section two characters often engage in conversation about politics, about corruption, the state of Iceland, and how the working person is maltreated; the message is so heavy-handed during section two that even Dickens would have clucked his tongue. However, it isn’t all bad news; some of the political satire is good fun, like when Petur, the manager [which appears to be like a mayor], rambles on about the importance of the soul while he oversees the displacement and exploitation of the locals. At these times the book reminded me of Platonov’s brilliant The Foundation Pit. Indeed, while I know nothing about the history of Iceland quite a lot of what occurs in World Light is reminiscent of a collectivist communist state.

I was tempted when I used the word episodic earlier in the review to call the novel picaresque instead; indeed, it boasts almost all of the hallmarks of a picaresque novel, except that Olafur is no rascal or picar. In truth, he isn’t, as a character, much of anything, and that is, perhaps, the book’s biggest flaw. Of course, he could be, and I would guess that he is, a satire on a certain kind of Icelandic personality. Yet, for a non-Icelandic reader, who isn’t in on any potential joke, he mostly comes across as dull and insipid. In fact, by part three I was really quite tired of him. On one level Olafur is easy to figure out; he was mistreated early in life and so seeks to avoid confrontation. That is fine, psychologically sound even. However, there came a point in my reading when I realised that he is pretty much entirely about negation: he has no opinions, no personality, no interests [outside of poetry or literature – and yet after section one he doesn’t read a single book]. The more I read the more convinced I became that Laxness didn’t like him very much either, that maybe he intended him to be an example of someone who appears to be selfless but is, in reality, emotionally entirely self-serving; furthermore, that while he is a good poet, on the surface, he could never be a great one because he refuses to fully engage in life or open his eyes to or, rather, be interested in the truth of the world. As the genuinely great John Keats once wrote:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all.