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THE MONGOLIAN CONSPIRACY BY RAFAEL BERNAL

I take a shower, then put on cologne and clothes. To meet a woman. Fucking women! What will it be like this time? Life has passed me by, the world has moved on without me. Fucking world! Five years I was with her, five years I was out of action, and the world changed, and people changed, and now everything is fucked. Where did your false sense of security get you, huh? All those five years I thought I was winning but I was actually setting myself up for the biggest loss. Love. Fucking love! Don’t tell me how exciting this is, how adventurous. They all enjoy the stories, before they add their own. They’re all crazy. Everyone is crazy. It’s not just the women. Fucking people! The president of the United States, the leader of the free world, his hand in his trouser pocket, fondling his dick whenever a woman crosses and uncrosses her legs. Fucking gringos! My eyes are open. Maybe the world hasn’t changed, maybe it was always like this and it’s only now that I can see it, now that I have to confront it. Five years cocooned inside my love, eyes closed, fast asleep, blissful, like a fucking baby.

If I could I would glue together the broken pieces of my cocoon, climb inside, and go back to sleep. A man needs his sleep, but it’s impossible. Fucking sleep! The eternal sleep is what I need. A French woman with a bearded dragon clinging to the front of her dress blowing me on a bench in the rain. Yeah, it’s a funny story, until you realise there is madness in it. Hers and mine. Fucking madness! Madness is my cocoon now. Staring into the frightened eyes of the bearded dragon. I’m scared too, buddy. Maybe I shouldn’t go out tonight, maybe I should stay here and write. What’s the worst that can happen, if I write instead? I just finished The Mongolian Conspiracy. Mexican noir, they call it. Fucking noir! So much machismo I could almost taste the author’s sweaty balls, but, still, it was good, and I should write about it, make writing my cocoon. The author is Rafael Bernal, who also wrote a book called Su nombre era muerte about a man who learns to communicate with mosquitos and then puts together a plan for world domination. Fucking world domination with the help of mosquitos! Fucking madness again! Although that does sound like the kind of book I want to read.

“And here I am with my hands so heavy, walking down the street. And she is my bed, alone with her death. And me alone, walking down the street, my hands as heavy as the many dead. And nothing’s heavy for her anymore, not time, not nothing. Or maybe her death is heavy as if a man were on top of her. I don’t know what that’s like, death. She does know. Thats why she’s alone. That’s why she’s not with me. Because she knows and I don’t. All I know is how to start down this road, how to live carrying my solitude.”

Filiberto Garcia is a hired killer, a ‘stiff factory.’ He’s a man who feels naked without his gun. Because of course he needs it to do his job. Fucking killing! Garcia has an inexpressive face, his mouth is ‘almost motionless.’ Except when he sneers. The furniture in his apartment is as if brand new because ‘so few people visited’ and nobody ever uses it. So you’re forming a picture, right? Of this man Garcia. This killer. A loner, a tough. Fucking tough guys! Filiberto doesn’t like joking or laughing. And neither do I, these days. Fucking laughing! In many ways he seems like the typical noir leading man. None of this is unexpected, really. Although perhaps he’s a little more dour than usual and down on himself. He frequently calls himself a chump, for example, for treating Marta with respect and tenderness. Yet on other occasions his misogyny has punch, quite literally, and he isn’t above throwing the word faggot around, or Chink, either. An arsehole, in short, but whoever thought a killer would be a good guy? Fucking good guys! In the early stages you wonder if you want to spend over two hundred pages in the company of someone like this.

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Yet as things progress you start to realise that the story has more depth, that Filiberto has more depth, than you thought at first. Fucking depth! What about the story? It takes place among the opium dens of Mexico’s Chinatown. There has been a rumour that the President of the United States is going to be assassinated during a upcoming trip to the country and that the Chinese are involved. Fucking President! The FBI and a Russian secret agent are investigating, and Garcia is dragged in too. Which all seems like nonsense, as I suggested. Albeit enjoyable nonsense, perhaps. But as I worked my way through the book it struck me that Bernal used this stupid set up, and his central character, to say some interesting things about international politics, first of all, and about Mexico itself, and ultimately the world. Fucking world! The FBI man and the Russian are suspicious of each other, each seems to be working his own angles. In fact, every man in a position of some power, every high ranking, important man, in the book is a louse. Secrecy, double-cross. All done with a daytime TV smile and a clean shirt and tie. All of them trying to slither up the greasy pole of power…but only a few can make it, only those who have the strength and stomach for the climb. The rest will get knocked down, will end up on their ass at the bottom. Most likely with a broken head. As Del Valle says: there are no friendships in politics. Fucking politics!

Does anyone really care about the president? Is there even an assassination plot? Life is a game to these people. Fucking games! Sure, some of them will die, but the real losers are the poor folks. The ex-whorehouse gringa, the Chinese, the smalltime toughs, the petty thieves, the drunkards, the lowdown, the hustlers, the scum, the morons who look at the pie and think they can help themselves to a slice. But that’s what people like Garcia are employed for: to slap away their hands, to protect the pie. Not for the good folks, but for the baddest guys of all. Fucking pie! Filiberto Garcia is the real secret agent, because he doesn’t know. Or he didn’t. But he’s starting to see, starting to open his eyes. The world has changed. Fucking world! Garcia is a ruthless man, who has done, and still does, terrible things. But he has a kind of code, a set of principles, a way of doing those terrible things, that is out of step. He has been left behind. He’s an old man, of course. Nearly sixty. Fucking old age! He hasn’t kept up. Lawyers everywhere you look. And I don’t matter anymore. Too right, grandpa. All you’re good for is killing, is doing the dirty work for others. The world is making progress. Mexico is making progress. Fucking progress! Even killing isn’t what it used to be. Garcia fought in the revolution, but that’s ancient history. Now there are cocktail lounges, not old-time cantinas.

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BRUGES-LA-MORTE BY GEORGES RODENBACH

Funny how, years later, I can still picture that one pose, how everything else has fallen away – all the bitterness, the arguments, the boredom – and left only that. I didn’t even see it first hand, I saw only her reflection in the surface of the mirror. I was sitting on her bed, and she, with her back to me, was grabbing at her short hair and pouting at herself; and I don’t know, I can’t recall, if I even found it beautiful at the time, but, after the break-up, this probably unreliable memory became, for a short while, an obsession, and the standard against which I judged all other women’s looks. How silly of me. In my mind I thought I was paying tribute to her, and yet in reality I was doing her an injustice, reducing her to a single image, one that no one, not even she, could have lived up to. If I see pictures of her now, which I do very infrequently, I just cannot square them with that young woman reflected in the mirror, who, I’m now sure, never existed anywhere but in my head.

Generally speaking, I’m not one for living in the past, for desperately scrambling after something that has gone. It’s too much like chasing a runaway donkey. It has a taste of the absurd about it. But I was nineteen at the time of the above anecdote, and nineteen is an absurd age. Besides, grief does strange things to you. No, she didn’t die, but the end of a relationship is a kind of death, a little death. It felt that way, anyway. I was in mourning; well, until I got over it, of course. Some people, however, never manage to do that, they cannot move beyond tragic or upsetting events. People like Hugues Viane, the central character in Georges Rodenbach’s atmospheric masterpiece Bruges-la-Morte.

“It was Bruges-la-Morte, the dead town entombed in its stone quais, with the arteries of its canals cold once the great pulse of the sea had ceased beating in them.”

In the opening pages Hugues is described as a solitary man with nothing to occupy his time. This, it soon becomes clear, is because his wife of ten years is dead. Or, more accurately, it is because, as hinted, he cannot get over his wife’s death, for he has, obviously, not been forced to spend the last five years alone, it is a kind of choice. Hugues wallows in his grief; he moves to Bruges, because it strikes him as a melancholy place, he contemplates suicide [but won’t go through with due to the small chance that this will prevent him renewing his relationship with his wife in heaven], and he is still wearing mourning for his spouse half a decade after she passed away. Moreover, he will not throw or give away her clothes or things, or change the arrangement of the home they shared, for this, he thinks, will, in a way, mean losing her again, or another part of her. It is, then, no surprise, although it is rather macabre, that his most treasured possession is a large chunk of her hair, which he removed from the corpse and keeps in a glass case.

On the basis of all this one might legitimately call Hugues obsessive, or even insane. Certainly there is, whatever you want to call it, something unhealthy and peculiar about his behaviour even at this early stage of the narrative. However, as things progress, one is left in no doubt at all as to how dangerous his frame of mind has become, as he first follows and then begins a kind of relationship with a woman who he believes is the very image of his dead wife. Yet it is to Rodenbach’s credit that one, or I at least, still feels some level of sympathy for his protagonist, even in the weirdest and most excruciating moments, such as when he attempts to make this doppelgänger try on one of his wife’s dresses. Bruges-la-Morte is less than one hundred pages long, and so the author did not have much to work with, but I never stopped believing in Hugues; he, and his grief, always felt kosher to me.

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[Portrait of Georges Rodenbach by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, 1895]

While the trajectory of Hugues’ relationship with this look-alike is what gives the novel momentum and tension, and I’d argue that all great novels need those things, it is not what provided me with the most enjoyment. First of all, Rodenbach’s prose is fantastic. I have seen it described as ornate, but it never struck me that way, especially in the context of when the book was published, 1892, a time when authors really did know a thing or two about overcooking their sentences. For me, Rodenbach wrote with clarity, and insight and tenderness. His prose is that special kind that, if I can write this without too much cringing, glides along the page, with grace and absolutely without pretension.

I was also impressed by how he worked his themes into the narrative, in a way that is touching and engaging without being too heavy-handed. Bruges-la-Morte is, of course, primary concerned with death, but rather than focussing on corpses and funerals and all that, he chose to write about change and decay and memory [which are all, or can be, related to death, of course]. I have mentioned some of this stuff already, but it is worth exploring in more detail. Take  the locks of hair, Rodenbach notes how, while the body slowly disintegrates, the hair remains constant, it doesn’t change or fade, it, in effect, challenges death. I was very much taken with that.

Or consider how it is said that the face of Jane, the look-alike, becomes that of his wife, how, to be specific, after seeing Jane her face actually replaces that of his wife in his memory. We have all, I’m sure, experienced that strange and cruel phenomena, whereby we cannot properly remember what someone looks like, where, after a period of time, their appearance starts to become fuzzy in our minds. This is what happened to Hugues, so while he thinks that Jane is a deadringer for his dead love, in actual fact it is only ever Jane he sees; his wife, in essence, becomes Jane, not the other way around. I thought that was brilliant. Moreover, the marriage, we’re told, was extremely happy, was one where the passion and love never diminished over time. Therefore, one wonders whether this is simply how Hugues remembers it, rather than it being strictly the case, for his wife has become, in his mind, a kind of saint. Indeed, he literally worships her memory and treats her things like relics.

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[Bruges-la-Morte, when originally published, featured a number of photographs of Bruges, including this one]

I hope I am managing to give some sense of how complex, moving and satisfying a book this is. There is, moreover, still much that I have not covered. I haven’t, for example, mentioned how mirroring plays such a prominent role in the text. Yes, of course, there is Jane and how she is the wife’s double, but there is more to it than that. At the very beginning of the book Hugues house is said to be reflected in the water of the canal outside. There is also much made of how Bruges itself mirrors the wife, how it is a dead city, and how Hugues needed a dead city to represent the dead woman. I must, before I finish, cover this in a little more detail, for Bruges-la-Morte is often described as one of the great ‘novels about cities,’ similar, in this way, to Ulysses or Bely’s Petersburg. Yet, without wishing to compare the quality of the three books, all of which I love, I would say that this one gave me more of a sense of place than the others. Bruges, we’re told, is where radiant colours are neutralised and reduced to greyish drowsiness, like a pastel drawing left uncovered. Which is, let’s be honest, fucking brilliant.

“Every town is a state of mind.”

Rodenbach takes us down the narrow streets, upon which falls constant rain, to the Église Notre-Dame [not the one in Paris], along the canals, and at every step there is an interplay between place and man, each intensifies the inherent sadness or bleakness of the other.

KOKORO BY NATSUME SOSEKI

A few years ago I had arranged to meet up with a girl I was loosely dating. I liked her a lot, but as she is a DJ, who works late nights, seeing each other was not easy. I had agreed to go to the club she was playing at that night and wait for her to finish, which would be something like 3am. As I didn’t want to spend the entire night stood at the side of the DJ booth waiting for her I asked my brother if he wanted to join me. I explained why I wanted to go out, I assured him that I would be free most of the night until 3am, and offered to pay for all his drinks. He agreed, and so we got ready and left our apartment around 9pm, to have a few drinks before we made our way to the club. However, in the first pub I noticed that my brother was spending a lot of time on his phone. When we had finished our drinks, I asked if he wanted another, and at this point he declined and started to groan theatrically, holding his stomach. He told me that he needed to go outside for some air. It was clear to me that he was playacting, so I offered to accompany him. He was not best pleased.

Outside, he kept taking exaggerated breaths as though he was going to be sick, and, as I wasn’t taking the hint, eventually he told me he was so ill he needed to go home. I said that was fine, but pointed out that I didn’t believe him and that if he was faking an illness to go off and meet some friend[s] I wouldn’t easily forgive him. He maintained that he was very unwell and therefore I let him leave. I stayed in the bar for a while, had another drink, and then, after texting my girl to say I might be late or not make it at all, decided to go home and see if my brother was ok. Of course, the apartment was empty. By this stage, I was so disgusted and tired of the whole situation I decided not to go out again. Then, in the early hours of the morning my brother rolled in, extremely inebriated. He had, as I suspected, left me to go and meet up with some friends. Our relationship hasn’t been the same since. Call it an overreaction if you like, but I can’t tolerate deceitfulness.

It is possibly unfair, and an exaggeration, but I see my brother as a kind of poster boy for the modern age [the above anecdote is only one example out of thousands]. My generation has been raised to believe that you are important, that what you want is what really matters; we are encouraged to indulge ourselves, to choose ourselves if ever faced with a two courses of action, one of which will benefit someone else and one that will benefit the great me. Qualities like honour, sacrifice, duty etc are becoming increasingly rare. Of course, I am not perfect in this regard, I am not completely selfless, but I am not absolutely self-interested either. I believe that it is important to have integrity, and to be able to see outside of oneself. Unfortunately, I see less and less of this with each new generation.

“No matter how full one’s head might be with the image of greatness, one was useless, I found out, unless one was a worthy man first.”

These concerns of mine are, I believe, one reason why Japanese literature resonates with me so much, as a sizable number of their most acclaimed authors, including the one under review here, wrote extensively about the tension between modern and traditional values, attitudes and behaviour. Indeed, the protagonists in Natsume Soseki’s best novels are usually indolent and self-obsessed young men who find themselves at odds with their parents and the disappearing or declining ‘old’ ways of life. This is certainly true of his most famous work, Kokoro, whose title can be roughly translated as heart. That title has a two-fold significance: heart as in love, which plays an important role in the text, and the heart of the matter. The matter being what we have been discussing,  i.e. the changing face of Japan.

The novel is split into three sections, the first of which centres on the relationship between an older man, Sensei, and a young student who narrates the action. The student, whose name is never revealed, is away from his family, first at college and then at university in Tokyo. Like Daisuke in Soseki’s And Then, he is the archetypal modern Japanese. He is introverted, bored and unmotivated; he does study for his diploma, but leaves it until the last minute and doesn’t appear to value it, when he has been awarded it, in the way that his parents do. I call these protagonists of Soseki’s superfluous men because they have no direction, no goal towards which they are striving. The student, like many of us, goes to university, not with a career in mind, or even to learn, but because it is something to do. In fact, he values Sensei  – whose acquaintance he makes almost by stalking him – more than his lectures or books.

Sensei is a kind of misanthrope, who has withdrawn from a world “so full of freedom, independence, and our own egoistical selves.” The closest word to Sensei, in meaning, in English is teacher; it is someone who is respected and knowledgeable. It is the young man who gives him this title, and so it is clear that the student is looking for guidance [although Sensei himself says that the boy is lonely and looking for love]. In this way, perhaps Soseki is saying that young people, living in times where morality and values are less certain, where freedom is almost absolute, need help or direction. It is, I think, the case that the more freedom one has the more lost or confused one can feel, that freedom is actually something that we find very difficult to cope with [this is, in fact, the clichéd modern dilemma]. In light of all this, it is not difficult to see the older man as having a symbolic function in the novel; he is, in this scenario, representative of the old or traditional world. Yet, while that might be true to a certain extent, his character is more complex than it appears to be initially.

As one progresses through the opening section, it becomes clear that Sensei is harbouring a secret, that something happened to him long ago to make him the way that he is. One would expect that this revelation [which comes in the final section] would involve him being mistreated, would involve some confrontation with the modern, selfish, dishonourable approach to life. And that is, at least partly, the case. As a young man Sensei was cheated out of his inheritance by his uncle after the death of his parents. As with Balzac, money, or more specifically a lack of it, plays a major part in Soseki’s novels [the idea of being relieved of an inheritance comes up again in The Gate]. Is Soseki saying that an obsession with money is a disease particular to the new Japan? Perhaps, although I think he was making a point about how there are no truly good or bad people, that our values are reliant upon circumstances, that, for example, if you have the opportunity to steal then you will. We return again to the idea of freedom. I don’t know enough about Japanese history, but maybe it is the case that prior to the Meiji era [when the novel is set] there was a strict moral prescriptivism that prevented these kinds of acts.

“You seem to be under the impression that there is a special breed of bad humans. There is no such thing as a stereotype bad man in this world. Under normal conditions, everybody is more or less good, or, at least, ordinary. But tempt them, and they may suddenly change. That is what is so frightening about men.”

In any case, if this was all that had happened to Sensei then his character would not be particularly engaging. What makes him fascinating is that he, in a sense, embodies the conflict that Soseki was writing about, because he himself does something that is considered dishonourable. I won’t go into details about what exactly that is, but it is certainly something that these days would likely barely raise an eyebrow. Sensei, however, is severely damaged by it, to the extent that it dominates, and ruins, his life. This is the sense of honour that we have previously touched upon, which is for us, and for Soseki’s modern Japan, disappearing. Yes, Sensei does wrong, but he feels overwhelmingly guilty about it, and, ultimately, he takes his own life [not much of a spoiler as we know Sensei is dead within a few pages of the book], as a way of atoning for his behaviour. There is something about the Japanese idea of honour suicide that I find extraordinarily attractive. I wouldn’t be party to it myself, but to give up your life as a way of trying to make amends is very powerful. One could see Sensei, then, as someone who is both modern and traditional; he errs in a way that is consistent with the outlook of Soseki’s contemporary Japan – i.e. he is prepared to tread on someone else to get what he wants, is prepared to exercise his freedom – but responds to this dishonourable act in a way that is consistent with the Samurai code; it is, in effect, an act of nobility that is out of step with the times.

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[General Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582]

Outside of all this modern vs traditional stuff, Soseki touches upon other [albeit related] themes. One is that of the city and the provinces. The student’s parents live in a village, and one is, somewhat ungenerously, given the impression that village life is old-fashioned, even backward. As for the parents, they note immediately that Tokyo has had an effect upon their returning son. Yet, even here, the provincial is, essentially, a symbol of the traditional, from which the student is trying to escape. Likewise, death, which plays a major role in Kokoro, and the tension between generations, could both be seen to suggest change or the ending of an era. Finally, what of love? I wrote earlier that it is central to the novel, but have as yet said very little about it. Partly that is to do with spoilers, but it is also because I am not sure how it relates to Soseki’s most obvious preoccupations. In his three greatest novels – Kokoro, The Gate and And Then – love could be said to be both a blessing and a curse. Indeed, in my favourite line, Sensei asks the student “do you know what it feels like to be tied down by long, black hair?” Is he saying that love in the modern age is also problematic, confusing, and difficult? If so, I guess he got that right too.

THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN BY THOMAS MANN

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the idea of holidaying from yourself; existentially speaking, I mean. It’s a phenomena that occurs when one finds oneself in a novel or unusual situation or environment, either by will or accident. A holiday is, itself, one example; but there are so many: starting a new job, being caught outside in harsh or extreme weather, moving house, etc. I love train journeys for this reason. One always finds that people behave strangely on trains, in ways, I presume, that they wouldn’t act normally. For example, I have had more than one girl aggressively come on to me on a train. And the weird thing is I felt the inevitability of it as soon as they sat down next to me, as though they were looking for an opportunity to behave in that manner, as though they considered the duration of the journey to be a period of time that was happening not to them, but to someone else, another self, a more liberated self.

On the most basic level, this phenomena is what The Magic Mountain is about. The hero of the story, Hans Castorp, visits his tubercular cousin Joachim Ziemssen at the sanatorium Berghof in the Swiss mountains. The Hans that we meet at the beginning of the novel, the Hans that is of the flatlands still, is a mediocre bourgeois. Throughout his life he has been unexceptional in everything; he passed his exams, yes, but ‘without a drum roll.’ Even the name Hans is, in Germany, unremarkable. Like another of Mann’s characters, Thomas Buddenbrook, Castorp is, we are led to believe, thoroughly conventional. He blushes when he hears, in the room next door to his own, a Russian couple making love, and is particularly shocked by it taking place ‘in the daytime.’ However, the Berghof is a new and alien environment, an environment that is – in numerous, often strange ways – distinct from the life he left down below, and this comes to have a profound effect upon him.

In the Berghof sanatorium Hans Castorp is freer than he is used to being, both intellectually and morally. He acknowledges this himself when he notes that he feels impelled to philosophise, which is something that he wouldn’t have done ‘down there.’ He also openly breaks or challenges sanatorium rules or conventions, such as when he visits critically ill patients or takes up skiing. His awakening, if you want to call it that, is also sexual; for example, his relationship with the slinky Russian, Clavdia Chauchat, is obviously unconventional. Not only does he not approach her in the way that he would a woman he is courting in a traditional manner [he uses her first name without permission], but she is, and again he acknowledges this himself, not the kind of woman he would have pursued at all in the flatlands. The sanatorium for Hans is a new reality, a new world; he is, in a sense, remaking, or perhaps finding, himself before your eyes.

With the setting of the novel being a sanatorium, and with nearly all of the characters being patients who are suffering from a variety of serious [and often terminal] ailments and diseases, it ought to be clear that The Magic Mountain deals with those weightiest of issues: life and death. Tellingly, when Hans arrives at the Berghof he believes that he is, in fact, perfectly healthy. Yet as far as the doctors are concerned no one is in perfect health. If you look hard enough you will find something, some defect, some fault, some illness. Which is exactly what happens; and Hans ends up staying well beyond the three weeks that he originally intended.

‘I was articulating my doubts that the words ‘human being’ and ‘perfect health’ could ever be made to rhyme.’

The relationship between illness and both life and death is a unique one. Illness is, in fact, a strange kind of intermediary stage and this accounts, in part, for the very odd, almost surreal atmosphere at the sanatorium, which, at times, resembles a kind of haunted house. Indeed, one of the characters, the pedagogue Settembrini, calls the patients ‘shades.’ They are, in a sense, in purgatory, they are phantoms hovering between two states of being; some, like the half-lung club, are like ghouls or other monstrous creatures. Death itself, however, is something that is not mentioned; when Hans tries to broach the subject his fellow patients are upset with him. Death, then, for the people in the sanatorium, as it is for us too, is something that one ignores or pretends does not happen. The management and staff behave in much the same way, or at least behave in a way that allows the patients to pretend that death does not happen. For example, corpses are removed on the quiet, and those who are close to death are separated from the rest.

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[Patients at the Hoehwald sanitorium, Davos, Switzerland, 1948]

In addition to life and death and illness, or in relation to all of those themes, Mann also continuously makes reference to the concept of time. When ill one has an obscure relationship with time. Days, weeks, minutes, hours all become confused or meaningless. When feverish, when not in one’s right mind, time flows by at an decreased speed. For instance, when laying in bed wracked with shivers, drifting in and out of sleep, what may seem like hours could be, in fact, only thirty minutes. Being ill is a little bit like being lost. When lost one imagines that time is moving much quicker than it actually is. Most of us have had this kind of experience. As we have the converse experience, i.e. a period of time that appears to be short but is in fact rather long. However, this experience is more often had by the active and healthy, by someone who has a busy day at work whereby he might sit down after what feels like an hour or two and note that actually five hours have flown by. The only way to stand outside of time, to not be subjected to its oppressive force, is through death. We speak of the dead as though time still applies to them – for example, we speak about how long it has been since they passed away – but it, of course, does not.

I mentioned Settembrini in a previous paragraph and it is perhaps worth focussing on him in a bit more detail. Many of the characters in the novel are symbolic, they are meant to represent certain ideas or approaches to being. Settembrini is enlightenment. He literally turns on the light when he comes to visit a Hans that has now been diagnosed and ordered to bed. Settembrini is in favour of action, of not succumbing to torpor or indolence; these things are contrary to enlightenment. Illness is a kind of torpor, or a fixation on one’s body; it’s bad faith, an excuse not to be active. This is why he criticises the establishment; because he sees it as advocating a kind of indolence, or decadence even, that is at odds with his world view. It is in relation to characters such as Settembrini that Mann makes it clear that illness is not merely a physical state, it is an intellectual or moral state also. This is why he, Settembrini, tries to teach Hans how to live. He sees Castorp as someone who is in danger, moral danger, rather than physical danger. Consider Settembrini’s nemesis, Naphta; he is, morally or intellectually, the most ill. Naphta is more than once described as being a terrorist. This doesn’t, of course, mean that he plants bombs and so on, but, rather, that he advocates terror or suffering. Naphta’s world view is, in this way, medieval.

“And life? Life itself? Was it perhaps only an infection, a sickening of matter? Was that which one might call the original procreation of matter only a disease, a growth produced by morbid stimulation of the immaterial?”

In line with Thomas Mann’s advice I have read The Magic Mountain twice. That it is recommended that one ought to read a book more than once in order to get a handle on it indicates that it is a tricksy thing, and The Magic Mountain’s reputation amongst the general public certainly bears that out. To some extent, however, I feel that its reputation is undeserved. The book is long, yes, and one could not, with a clear conscience, claim that it is easy to digest, but it is not nearly as difficult, nor tedious, as some would have you believe. For me, the book can be divided into two parts. The first half is not, despite its oddness, particularly taxing, but the second half is certainly more of a challenge, particularly in relation to Naphta, who engages in a sizeable amount of dry philosophy. I must admit that I have found, during both reads, Naphta’s appearances in the text almost unbearable, but I do also think that this was intentional on Mann’s part. Naphta is meant to be ugly, not just in terms of his looks, but also his attitudes. His passages do drag, but one at least understands their inclusion, and, in any case, they are not frequent enough to ruin one’s experience of the book as a whole.

It is tempting when describing The Magic Mountain to reach for terms such as intelligent, fascinating, profound, moving, and so on. And it is all of those things. However, it is at times also very funny, which may be something of a surprise. Or certainly I found it very funny. So much so that I did wonder whether I was losing my mind. Mann has an ironic and detached authorial voice, and so it is easy to miss the jokes, but they are there. One example is when Hans’ relative, James Tienappel, has a conversation with Director Behrens about what happens to bodies after death, and, absolutely in no frame of mind for having his eyes opened, hotfoots it back down to the flatlands early one morning without even telling Hans he is leaving. Another is when Hans first arrives and hears one of the patients coughing in such a strange way that it freaks him out:

‘Compared to it, all other coughs with which he was familiar had been splendid, healthy expressions of life.’

Is it just me who can’t help laughing at that? And what about Mynheer Peeperkorn? He had me in hysterics.

Anyway, I’m almost at my self-imposed 2000 word limit, so I’d better wrap this up. I’ll do so with a nice little anecdote. When The Magic Mountain appeared in 1924, Thomas Mann gave his son, Klaus, a copy, in which he had written:

‘To my respected colleague – his promising father.’  

Ah, Thomas, you old wag.

METAMORPHOSES BY OVID

Certain philosophers, including John Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, have claimed that one has to accept, to confront, the fact that one has been abandoned, and, as such, one has to take responsibility for who you are and what you do. I’ve always liked that idea, have lived my life that way as much as possible, and yet I find religious belief, which certainly allows for individual responsibility but which is the anthesis of a philosophy of abandonment, incredibly attractive. For many of the existentialists religious belief is bad faith, in that it is to accept, and submit to, an authority outside of yourself which provides guidelines [and demands] for your behaviour. Well, I’m not a believer, and never have been, but I happen to find that unfortunate. Bad faith it might be, but it would be a relief, would ease a lot of my anguish, if I could look at the world around me and see a plan, could envisage a plan for myself. I can’t though, I just don’t feel it; and then I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Metamorphoses is an epic poem, comprising fifteen books and over 250 myths [thanks wiki]; it is an attempt to chart the creation and progress of the world, in much the same way as the Old Testament does. Now, I’m certainly not saying that I believe, in the strictest sense of that word, the stories that Ovid laid down, all those Gods and shape-shifting beings, but the book did have a profound effect on me. Genuinely so. I think sometimes, and I’m guilty of it too, that reviewers give the impression of being permanently enraptured. Not every book we read is life-changing, or perfect or a profound and beautiful experience; some are though, and this kind of feels like one. As a result of my reading I’ve started to look at the world a little differently. Ovid’s poem explained the world to me, presented the world to me, in a new and exciting way; and, suddenly, it is a richer place.

Behind each of the things and creatures Ovid touches upon there is a story, and as I came upon these things in my every day life I was reminded of the applicable tale and felt, yeah, happier, somewhat comforted. It may be naíve, but it struck me that this must be what it’s like to be a religious believer: everything makes sense, everything is as it ought to be. Take one of my favourites, the story of Arachne. Arachne was involved in a weaving contest with Pallas Athena. At the conclusion of the contest Arachne hangs herself; Pallas Athena transforms the girl into a spider, her nimble fingers now her legs, to hang forever more. As a result of this story I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eye one without thinking of Arachne, without seeing her in it; of course, I’ll still  murder the multi-eyed motherfuckers, but my experience has [like Arachne herself] been transformed, and so I’ll perhaps do it with a heavier heart; I even feel a little less frightened of them.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that the only way to relate to the book is as a pseudo-spiritual experience. Metamorphoses is, more than anything else, great fun. As the title suggests, the primary theme is one of change or transformation, and within the pages we encounter people becoming trees, birds, bears, and rivers, to name a few; then there are the nymphs, naiads, and dragons etc. A great number of the stories or episodes are parables, yes, but one could justifiably approach them as fairytales. Obviously, some are more interesting than others, but all are short and readable; if you were to open the book at random I’d wager that you’d find something to entertain you within a couple of pages. I was particularly taken with Phaeton and his dodgy driving of his father’s [the sun god Helios] chariot of light [he loses control and burns half the earth], Tereus’ kidnapping of his wife’s sister [don’t worry, his wife gets payback], and Echo’s unrequited pursuit of Narscissus [yeah, so that wasn’t doomed, was it? You’ve got great taste in men, love].

It is, it’s worth noting, a pretty lusty book too, with lots of gettin’ it on between Gods and Gods, and Gods and mortals, and just about everyone and everything else. On this point, this is apparently what happens to you if you trick your father into bumping uglies with you:

Frankincense Tree1

Oh Myrrha, you dirty so-and-so.

There is also, by the way, a lot of rape to navigate, which, as is always the case, I could have done without, but which is, thankfully, never graphic. The women aren’t all mindless airheads either; Juno, for example, is one of the strongest, certainly most wicked, characters; her stock response to her husband’s [Jupiter] indefatigable infidelity is to try and ruin the girl[s] and, usually, the resulting offspring. Her behaviour would make Glen Close blush and could provide inspiration for a whole series of Japanese revenge films.

If I have any criticisms of the work they would be structural ones. In the translation I read the individual stories are titled, yet it is clear that Ovid intended his Metamorphoses to be read as one long continuous poem, that it is essentially meant to work as a complete piece. However, some of the connections between the episodes are tenuous at best and this may irritate readers who want a more straightforward narrative. Ovid will often tie one story to another by saying something along the lines of well, that happened over there, but over here something equally interesting was going on or after presenting the story of, say, Perseus he will write Perseus’ nephew had a friend, whose uncle knew someone who had a goat. Well, that goat was owned by… as an introduction to the next, and so it’s sometimes a bit like he was playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon. I didn’t mind this though, the [sometimes amusingly unsuccessful] attempts to link the individual stories made the book more engaging, satisfied that part of me that usually doesn’t enjoy short stories. On a side note, one could also perhaps credit Ovid with inventing the idea of stories-within-stories, as sometimes he would begin by telling the tale of one character only for that character to then embark on another story entirely.

I don’t have any other negative comments to make, except to say that there is some repetition. My biggest regret was reading Stanley Lombardo’s translation, which is just awful. His word order is at times odd and confusing, although I guess he would claim that Ovid’s is too. What I do know is that Ovid was not responsible for the use of slangy contemporary phrases, such as it got on his nerves or hot under the collar [these are my examples; I can’t remember any of Lombardo’s off the top of my head, but they are exactly the kind of phrases he regularly employs]. I was genuinely concerned that Jupiter was going to tell someone to not have a cow, man. Or announce that the girl he has just spied is well fit, or that the lyre playing is dope. Of course, some people may prefer modernised language, but, quite frankly, fuck ’em. Other than that, Metamorphoses is very highly recommended. Get Allen Mandelbaum’s translation if you can though.