mystery

51cflpsmy9l-_sx258_bo1204203200_

LAST NIGHTS OF PARIS BY PHILIPPE SOUPAULT

Over the last twelve months I have become familiar with the night. I have been turned out, with increasing regularity, to flit between darkness and artificial light with erratic, moth-like movements. I have become part of the once-mysterious nocturnal world that previously I only dimly perceived through my bedroom window or through the filter of sleep. Shouts and chants. Screams and laughter. Now it is all at my shoulder, as I stop to lift heavy kisses to my lips on street corners or outside bars. At close quarters, the shadows, like a ripe chrysalis, split, to reveal the true forms inside. The spiders and rats. The murderers and whores. The drunks and drug dealers. This is my audience.

“The night clung to the trees, then, lying in wait in the shadowy spaces or crouching in the long, narrow and somber streets, it seemed to be spy upon us as if we were emerging from some dive. The least noise was a catastrophe, the least breath a great terror. We walked in the eternal mud.”

Philippe Soupault, one of the founders of surrealism, was, it is said, thrown out of the movement for the ‘isolated pursuit of the stupid literary adventure.’ One of these adventures is Les Derniers Nuits de Paris, or Last Nights of Paris in William Carlos Williams’ translation, which was published in 1928. It begins, after dark of course, with a chance meeting between the narrator and pale-faced Georgette, a local prostitute. As they walk around Paris they come to witness a peculiar, unsettling scene. A shriek is heard. A couple are said to ‘take to their heels.’ Someone commands: ‘Put out the lights.’ A procession. A woman, wearing a ‘smile of suffering’, is manhandled and ends up lying motionless, ‘almost in the gutter.’

If this sounds more like what you would expect from a noirish thriller, than a work of surrealism, what follows appears to strengthen this impression. Consistent with the crime/detective genre, one of the novel’s principle concerns is unravelling the truth of what happened that night, with the narrator acting as chief investigator as he trails, makes contact with, and interviews the main players. Moreover, the pervading atmosphere is appropriately, one might say predictably, gloomy and threatening. The aforementioned scene, for example, takes place at midnight, which is, Soupault writes, ‘the hour of crimes.’ There is also a fair amount of rain, and abundant references to things like the ‘morose facades of nameless shops’ and streets that are ‘dark and full of bad smells’, and so on.

20120925-154800 (1).jpg

Yet for me Last Nights of Paris is a counterfeit thriller, in that the resemblance to that genre is superficial only. There is a a mystery, as noted, but for Soupault it is an excuse to explore, or rather it is used as a basis to explore the ideas that form the philosophical and emotional core of the novel. One of these ideas or themes is the nature of chance. Throughout, the narrator bumps into various shady characters, all of whom turn out to be connected to each other and connected to the ‘strange drama’ he is, in a fashion, investigating. These coincidences give ‘the glamour of miracles’ to his existence. Chance can make one feel as though one is at the centre of something extraordinary, rather than something mundane, and yet requires nothing extraordinary from you in return.

Therefore, the reality of, the explanation behind, the events that he has witnessed, or been party to, is really not that important, or is certainly less important than his perception of these events. What I mean by this is that the focus, the goal, of crime fiction is usually to uncover the truth, but here it is to understand how things can become imbued with mystery or significance. Indeed, there is a sense that the narrator has created the mystery himself, that he allows his imagination to conjure, or to wander, as he himself wanders the Paris streets at night. As with the two leads in Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, he sees meaning, imposes meaning, on things, that isn’t necessarily there independent of him, such as the taxi driver who ‘pushed his motor to the limit and seemed to comprehend the importance of his mission.’ Indeed, he admits of himself that the ‘cold, dull realm of actualities, arid and uncultivated as it is, has never tempted me.’

His greatest accomplice in this endeavour to create mystery, and consequently excitement and romance, is the night. Take Georgette as an example. When he sees her in the daytime she is ‘no longer the same.’ She is revealed to be an ‘uninspired woman, commonplace and hardy.’ Only at night is she the ‘queen of mystery’; her charm ‘did not become real until she withdrew from the light and entered obscurity.’ The night, like chance or coincidence, and like Paris too, has the power to transfigure. Night, the ‘eternal mud.’ Night, my quixotic friend, my guardian, my benefactor. Perhaps all that I have seen and heard, and all that we have done together, these last twelve months has been an illusion, but, if so, I am thankful for that, for the days have been so cruel and unwelcoming.

26835588

MASTER OF THE DAY OF JUDGMENT BY LEO PERUTZ

Life, I told someone the other day, has been getting in the way of my reading. Which is, I guess, a good thing. After the recent breakdown of a relationship, a relationship characterised by a familiar resistance to engaging meaningfully with the world around me, I vowed to change. Too late, of course, to hold onto the person that meant so much to me. One of the more distressing aspects of human existence is that often the one who inspired a change or growth in a man, the one who waited so patiently for it, will never benefit from it; no, that benefit will be for someone else, someone who did not have to work with the earlier, shoddier model, and who is therefore not even aware of the improvement; someone who, with blissful ignorance, accepts that this is who you are and have always been.

With this change my engagement with books has slowed to a pace consistent with that of a sane human being, one who is, indeed, not much of a reader at all. It has been two months since I completed Roland Topor’s The Tenant, a period of time, which, when I try to imagine it, strikes me as vast and extraordinary, like the surface of a previously unknown planet. I have picked up a number of novels during those two months, but unenthusiastically, reading only a page or two here and there; none of these books aggressively appealed to me, none of them turned me on in the way that they would once have done, when they would have breathed hotly into my ear and rested a hand on my cock. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Ironically, just as my relationship with my partner soured, so has my relationship with books, such that they now strike me as something like a wife I no longer desire.

I must admit that I was starting to panic, about this, about my blog and the prospect of never again updating it, and that panic became motivating. Was I to give it up? Does having a life outside of books involve becoming like the people I once criticised, the ones who told me they didn’t have time for serious reading, and certainly not for reflecting on what they had read? You have the same amount of time as everyone else, I would say, with predictable arrogance. So, this is, in truth, why we are here, why this review exists. It is pure panic, rather than excitement or stimulation. But this does not, of course, tell you anything about Leo Perutz or Master of the Day of Judgement.

In order to rectify this let me state that Perutz was born in Prague, but spent much of his life in Vienna. I do not know of what interest this is. He wrote, I think I am right in saying, for this is the only work of his I have any real knowledge of, literary thrillers, or ‘page-turners’ [although every book is a page-turner to someone]. One commentator described Master of the Day of Judgement, as critics are wont to do, as the marrying of Kafka and Agatha Christie. Which is nonsense, of course. You can guarantee that any author or novel compared to Kafka bears no significant resemblance at all to the great man’s writings. There is, however, something in the Christie comparison, although I have come to this conclusion from a position of almost total ignorance.

In any case, there are certainly familiar murder-mystery dynamics on display here. A group of people, many of whom are harbouring secrets or are connected to each other in ways that may arouse suspicion should someone lose their life, are gathered together in a house. Before too long a shot [or two shots] rings out, and the body of Eugen Bischoff, a once celebrated actor who has recently run into money troubles, is discovered. Are any of the people present responsible for his death, which, on the surface, appears to be suicide? Indeed, the room in which Eugen’s body was found was locked, and so the possibility of an outsider being involved seems remote, if not impossible. As expected, from this point onwards, although the novel lacks the traditional detective leading man or woman, one is led in stages through an investigation into the ‘crime.’

F1.large.jpg

[The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch]

While Master of the Day of Judgement moves at a particularly brisk pace, and there is the always intriguing whodunnit element, if this is all it had to offer I would likely not have finished it [especially as the prose is rather workmanlike]. What gives the book its depth is that some of the Prague strangeness, that is so familiar to me, both in terms of literature and my own experiences of the city, filters into the work. First of all, the story is told in the first person, by Baron von Yosch, and because he is the prime suspect one is invited to doubt his version of events. Indeed, he makes no secret of his unreliability. Yes, he declares in the opening pages that he has ‘omitted nothing’, yet soon admits to getting important dates muddled. Moreover, he actually stops himself at one point in his narration to call himself a liar and, more significantly, later confesses to the crime, only to explain it away as a false memory.

There are also a number of allusions as to the [doubtful] quality of von Yosch’s character. In one scene he overhears two people talking about him, and one of them states that he believes the man to be capable of ‘ruthlessness and murder’ [if not dishonourable action]. Waldemar Solgrub, who is one of the book’s main players, tells the Baron that others talk about him with a kind of ‘respectful hatred.’ Therefore, although the focus shifts away from von Yosch as a suspect as the novel progresses, or certainly in the minds of the other characters, as the reader one is given multiple hints that one ought not to be so eager to dismiss him.

“The rhythm of life and death was a banal dance tune. Thus we come and thus we go. What shatters us and casts us down utterly turns out to be an ironic smile on the face of the world spirit, to whom suffering and grief and death are continually recurring phenomena familiar since the beginning of time.”

Yet for me the most engaging aspect of Master of the Day of Judgement, and what provides a legitimate stylistic link to a well-known Prague inhabitant [Gustav Meyrink, not Kafka], are the gothic overtones. von Yosch, in his foreword, describes the events as a ‘tragic and sinister business’ and the investigation as a search for ‘a culprit not flesh and blood,’ and this sets the tone for the majority of the work. There is a suicide note that contains a single word, ‘dreadful’; there are references to monsters and ‘phantoms’; and words such as ‘terror’ and ‘nightmare’ appear frequently. And what of the title? What is the day of judgement? It has, of course, a biblical connotation; it is, our narrator says, the last day, when ‘Satan triumphs over the sinful soul.’ Indeed, one is led to believe that it may in fact be the cloven-hoofed one who is the elusive Master, whom Solgrub and von Yosch are on the trail of. And that is, surely, enough to recommend any book.

silence-978144729985101

SILENCE BY SHUSAKU ENDO

I’m not a religious man, although I wish that I was. I’ve said before, elsewhere, that believing in God would, I think, relieve or put an end to a lot of my anxiety. Much of the time I feel awfully lost, and ashamed of my own weakness, my own humanity. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t simply self-loathing; I’m ashamed of the rest of you too. I look around myself and everything seems so brutal and meaningless, and yet to live with even a smidgen of happiness you have to be able to imbue life with meaning. The idea that all this is a trial, something to endure for a while on the road to a greater reward, would be comforting for me. But unfortunately I cannot accept that.

Bearing my atheism in mind, it is easy to see why Shusako Endo’s Silence might alienate me, as it is concerned with the nature of faith, with spreading the word of God, and Christian martyrdom. I am interested in these things, of course, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that my interest was strong enough to make reading a novel such as this worthwhile. Yet while it is certainly the case that Silence will resonate most with someone for whom these things play a role in their everyday life, the novel, as evidenced by how highly-thought of it is, has a wide appeal, it transcends its specific subject and concerns. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most significant, in my opinion, certainly in terms of my own enjoyment, is that the author injected both pace and tension into his narrative by borrowing from the mystery-thriller genre.

“Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

The text invites you to mull over many theological and philosophical questions, but it a different kind of question that gives the novel momentum: what happened to Father Ferreira? Ferreira is a well-respected priest, a missionary, who sailed to Japan, where Christianity has been outlawed, in order to help and support oppressed Japanese Christians. Rumour has it, however, that he apostatised under torture. Due to a scarcity of reports, and dismissing those relating to apostasy, two young priests, former students of Ferreira’s, travel to Japan in order to find out the truth. So on the most basic level Silence is an investigation, a search for a missing person.

Moreover, the two men know that to be a Christian priest in Japan in the 1600’s is extremely dangerous, that they are, in effect, entering enemy territory. As you would expect, then, there is a lot of anxiety and paranoia; secret hiding places are created, people are eyed suspiciously, etc. One of these people is Kichijiro, a Japanese who helps the priests to enter the country and claims to be able to put them in contact with local Christians. When Kichijiro first appears in the novel he is drunk, and his personality and behaviour is consistently described in negative terms. He is, we’re told, an idler; he is cunning; he is a coward. There is, not surprisingly, a general uneasiness amongst the priests in relation to him, a feeling that he may one day sell them out, may denounce them to the Japanese authorities. Indeed, he is clearly set up to be a Judas figure.

However, these things are not, of course, the heart of the novel. This, as noted, involves a series of theological/philosophical issues and questions, the most important of which pertains to the title. The silence that Endo is referring to is God’s. One of the oldest, and most popular, criticisms of God is that if he exists, and if he is all powerful and all good, why does he not intervene to prevent or lessen suffering or at least reveal himself to those who are suffering? His silence, it is argued, suggests ambivalence, it gives the impression that he does not care. So, when the poor and wretched Japanese are being tortured for their beliefs, one of the priests, Sebastião Rodrigues, wonders how it can be that God does not want to show them some solidarity or empathy; he feels as though he has, in a sense, turned his back on them, and it makes him uncomfortable, to the extent that his own faith wavers somewhat.

“It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.”

I must admit that I found all this slightly odd, especially considering that Endo was himself a Christian and ought, therefore, to understand the nature of faith [as would a priest!]. What I mean by this is that a vocal God would make faith itself meaningless. What is powerful about faith is that it exists without consistent and conclusive proof of God’s existence; the important thing is to retain a belief in him and his teachings in the face of his silence, because, let’s face it, anyone can do that if he drops in for regular chats; in order words, it’s hard to doubt the creator of the universe when he is in direct contact with you.

Faith also plays a part in one of the novel’s other major themes, which is apostasy. As previously mentioned, that father Ferreira is said to have apostatised under torture shocks his former students, who refuse to believe it. Therefore, apostasy, i.e. turning your back on your religion, is clearly seen as something shameful, even if one is driven to it by being subjected to intense pain. Faith is necessary in a situation like this, because our natural instinct is to avoid pain. One would need something to make enduring it possible or at least seem worthwhile, and that is a commitment to God, and a belief that negative experiences are a test, and that one’s reward for passing it will come later. Without a strong belief in God allowing oneself to be killed or tortured, rather than apostatise, would be madness.

ChristianMartyrsOfNagasaki

[The Christian martyrs of Nagasaki. 17th-century Japanese painting]

What is notable about Endo’s take on apostasy is that he acknowledges that faith alone is not enough to justify suffering. While one might take it upon oneself, one might accept one’s own fate, it is a different situation to be faced with the suffering of others. Rodrigues, who narrates part of the novel, and serves as the central character throughout, is given an ultimatum, which is ‘apostatise or others will be tortured and ultimately murdered.’ Initially, he is unsure how to approach this issue, how to deal with the responsibility or resolve his dilemma. In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal his decision. However, I would myself argue that God is understanding, that he is not a tyrant, and therefore a sin such as apostasy would be forgiven in certain circumstances. One must bear in mind that most ordinary people would forgive someone who ‘does wrong’ while being tortured or does so in an effort to prevent the torture of others; and so if God is less understanding and sympathetic than man, one must ask oneself if he is actually worth following anyway.

There is, of course, more that can be written about all this, but a book review is not the place for an in-depth theological discussion. I do want, however, to touch upon one other thing before concluding, which is the role of the missionary. For me, the most fascinating, the most engaging and original, aspect of Endo’s novel is in relation to those who go to foreign countries in order to spread their religion. I’m no expert, but as far as I know, converting others is an important part of Christianity; and this makes sense because if you believe that your religion is the right one, then it is one’s duty, as a human being, to attempt to make others see the error of their ways. To not do so would be, in a sense, to condemn them. However, what if your religion is not good for them, or if it is incompatible with their culture? This is what the local authorities think, that Christianity simply cannot take root in Japan. Even Rodrigues and Ferreira are not convinced that the natives understand the religion, or the Christian God, in the way that they ought to, that they think of him as a man, a powerful human being. This is something that I had never considered before, that, with cultural and language barriers, bringing your religion to another nation is almost impossible. It is like a complex form of Chinese whispers, whereby one can recognise the original message when it reaches its destination, but something essential is missing. Is spreading the word not, therefore, pointless? Certainly, it seems horribly cruel to encourage the natives to suffer for this confused form of Christianity.

Much of what I have written so far has not given an indication as to how I feel about Endo’s novel. I must admit that I found it dreadfully disappointing. Thematically, if one has never engaged with these issues, Silence might strike you as profound. Yet having studied the philosophy of religion I was familiar with most of the book’s ideas, and therefore did not find it especially rewarding. More importantly, the writing is simply not very good; in fact at times it is woeful. On this, not only are Endo’s metaphors obvious and clichéd, but he keeps repeating them. For example, Kichijiro is described as being like a cowering dog multiple times. This could be a translation issue – and there are, in fact, Endo novels that are not as poorly written – but, alas, I cannot prove that. In any case, there are other problems that can only be laid at the feet of the author, including an overemphasis on the parallels between Rodrigues and Jesus. All of this meant that my overriding impression of the book was of one that is laboured and unsophisticated.

41Pi137AB+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

THE SECRET AGENT BY JOSEPH CONRAD

In the aftermath of a tragedy people often look towards artists, towards novelists, musicians and poets also, for comfort, the kind of comfort one finds when someone is able to capture an event, or feelings, that you yourself find incomprehensible or unfathomable or inexpressible. For example, after 9/11 there was a rush to proclaim certain kinds of art as speaking for the time[s], and it was then that Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent received a lot of attention, it being a novel concerned with a plot to blow up a well-known building. Subsequent to the attacks on the Twin Towers, this book has now come to be known as The Great Terrorism Novel, and is seen as a kind of prophetic/prescient work. Yet, there is something about the The Secret Agent, something about the particular brand of terrorism that it deals with, that people often choose to ignore or simply misunderstand; or perhaps, if one was being especially cynical, which I almost always am, one might wonder if a lot of the journalists who put the book forward have actually read it.

Adolf [yes, Adolf] Verloc has two jobs. One is to run a seedy shop in London with his wife and her simple-minded brother, and the other is as the secret agent of the title. However, Verloc is no James Bond; he is an observer, and informer; that is, until one day he is told, by the shady Mr. Vladimir, who is some kind of foreign ambassador, that observation is not enough. He must, says Vladimir, prove to be indispensable if he wants to remain on the payroll. This being indispensable involves blowing up Greenwich Observatory, the aim of which is to stir England into decisive, even extreme, action against criminal/revolutionary/terrorist elements or organisations. It is Vladimir’s idea that in order to do this one must get the attention of, to wake up so to speak, the middle classes.

‘The imbecile bourgeoisie of this country make themselves the accomplices of the very people whose aim is to drive them out of their houses to starve in ditches. And they have the political power still, if they only had the sense to use it for their preservation. I suppose you agree the middle-classes are stupid?’

Mr. Verloc agreed hoarsely.

‘They are’

‘They have no imagination. They are blinded by an idiotic vanity. What they want just now is a jolly good scare.’

This is blistering stuff. The terrorists are not crazy Arabs hellbent on destroying democracy and taking over the world, as some commentators would have you believe was the case with 9/11, this is violence and terrorism used against an ignorant or complaisant people in order to enrage them, in order to manipulate them into doing what you want them to do. So, far from providing balm for the masses, The Secret Agent is actually more likely to fuel conspiracy theories; its take on the political world is, in fact, far closer to the popular conspiracy theory that the World Trade Centre attacks were an inside job, that they were brought down in order to give the US government a reason to wage war in the Middle East.

‘You give yourself for an “agent provocateur.” The proper business of an “agent provocateur” is to provoke.’

One of the first things you will notice about The Secret Agent is that although the novel is purported to be set in London, there is not a great deal that is recognisably English about it. All of the revolutionaries, for example, have continental-sounding names – Ossipon, Verloc, Michaelis, etc – despite it being the case that they are meant to be British citizens. Furthermore, Conrad’s capital city is a particularly gloomy place; even taking into account that London may have been dirty and so on, there is something almost phantasmagorical, but certainly very odd, about the way the Pole presents it. In Bleak House Dickens writes about the fog and such, but Conrad’s London appears to be permanently in darkness, with a palpable threat of violence or madness always in the air; Indeed, the sense of madness or mental strain that pervades the work is reminiscent of Dostoevsky [although Conrad was, apparently, not a fan].

A blank wall. Perfectly blank. A blankness to run at and dash your head against.

For a novel so obviously, relentlessly, political and satirical it would be easy to see the characters as mere symbols, or representations, or one-dimensional puppets. Yet there is also a strong human aspect to the work. First of all, there is the conflict resulting from the task given to Verloc, by which I mean that of the observer who is forced to be an active participant. It takes a special kind of person to do this sort of thing, to bomb a building; most people are capable of standing by and letting it occur, but it’s a different thing, takes a different kind of personality, altogether to be the one holding the explosive, to detonate it. As one would imagine, if you force someone to act who is more suited to observing the consequences are likely to be disastrous.

Secondly, there is the relationship between the simple-minded Stevie and the Verlocs. Stevie does have a representative or symbolic function in the novel: he is innocence and confusion and, one could also say, chaos [at least mentally/emotionally]; he is, in a sense, both the moral conscience of the novel and a human mirror of the emotional state of Mr. Verloc himself [as well as perhaps all revolutionaries]. Yet he also provides the most tender moments in the book, such as his sympathy for the whipped horse and the poor driver of the horse, and all of the tragedy. Stevie is a tragic figure because he is a wholly trusting and loving brother and brother-in-law. Mrs. Verloc sacrifices herself in order to provide a safe and comfortable home for him, while Mr. Verloc ultimately takes advantage of him in an apparently mindless, yet cruel manner.

I hope that so far I have gone some way to summing up some of the book’s strengths and points of interest, yet it would be remiss of me not to mention that many readers raise serious objections. Of these objections most are related to Conrad’s style. On this, there is no doubt that The Secret Agent is at times a mess of adverbs and repetition; no character does or says anything in the book that isn’t, in some way, over or unnecessarily described and repeated. For example, Verloc is said to ‘mumble’ or speak ‘huskily’ with such frequency that it is liable to cause mirth or extreme irritation in the reader. Indeed, if you were to be brutally honest, this over-reliance on certain words, and excessive number of adverbs, is the kind of thing you would expect from the most amateur of YA authors, not one of the most renowned novelists of the 20th century.

So, does this mean that Conrad was a bad writer? Or that The Secret Agent is a badly written book? That is certainly one way to look at it. One might say that as Conrad was a Pole writing in English it is understandable that his vocabulary would be limited and his sentences idiosyncratic. Yet I don’t quite agree with this. All of his novels are dense and difficult but, unless my memory is faulty, this is the only one written in this particular way. Furthermore, some of the repetition, for example ‘Ossipon, nicknamed Doctor’, occurs on subsequent pages in the text, and, for me, it is absurd to think Conrad wouldn’t have noticed. This suggests that these flaws were perhaps intentional, that it was a style choice. However, one is then, of course, faced with coming up with some way of justifying that style choice.

The Secret Agent features intellectually dull men, incompetent revolutionaries with radical ideas or, in Verloc’s case, an incompetent secret agent. As with Stevie, Conrad’s banal yet convoluted style in a way mirrors the mental, intellectual state of these characters. Furthermore, as previously noted, the novel’s atmosphere is that of confusion and anxiety and potential violence. The repetition, the overall strange writing style, to some extent, makes the reader feel how the characters themselves feel; it is, whether one likes it or not, disorientating, and that does not strike me as a coincidence. Indeed, it is worth noting that the novels that The Secret Agent most closely resembles, to my mind, are The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov and Petersberg By Andrei Bely, both of which are also written in a bizarre style that some readers have wanted to proclaim as bad writing [or translation].

While many argue that The Secret Agent’s style is unsophisticated the same could not be said of the structure. In the early part of the novel each new chapter deals with a different character, often introducing a previously unknown one. Rather than follow Verloc as he carries out his assigned task, the narrative moves around, shifts perspective; and during each of these shifts characters will discuss both past and present events, thereby only gradually revealing what is going on. For example, one finds out during an early chapter featuring Ossipon and the Professor that someone has blown themselves up, and that it is assumed that it is Verloc. But you never see the event itself, and you don’t find out what actually happened until much later. There is, therefore, no linear timeline of events; much like a detective, you have to piece together the timeline yourself, and this is particularly satisfying.

However, towards the end of the novel the focus narrows, and in the last 50 or so pages Mrs. Verloc comes to the fore. There is a long passage between her and her husband that is difficult to discuss without spoilers, but it is a truly brilliant piece of writing. Conrad manages to show grief and shock in a way that is more accurate and moving than I thought possible in a novel. For me, it is worth reading The Secret Agent for this long passage alone. Yet, that is not necessary, one need not only read Conrad’s work for this passage, because it gives you so much more: farce, tragedy, murder, satire, mystery, and so on. It may not be The Great Terrorism Novel, it may not comfort the masses the next time a bomb explodes, scattering far and wide the flesh of hundreds or thousands of destroyed bodies, but it is a fucking great book.

516V+NZtNcL

THE SHIPYARD BY JUAN CARLOS ONETTI

For sale: babies shoes, never worn.

The above is described as a six-word novel, and is often said to have been written by Ernest Hemingway, although I have also seen it attributed to F Scott Fitzgerald. Regardless of the identity of the author, it’s an clever little thing. It is designed to make one ask questions, such as Why were the shoes never worn? Why are they for sale? and so on. One is meant to read the novel and speculate; one is meant to be intrigued.

When I came to review The Shipyard by the Uruguayan author Juan Carlos Onetti I set down the following as the beginning of a brief synopsis:

A former pimp, Larsen, returns after an unexplained exile to a fictional South American town.

And I looked at that and felt as though those words contained something like the ‘babies shoes’ sense of mystery. Why a former pimp? Why had he been exiled? Why is he returning now? That such few words could raise so many interesting questions, could excite me even though I’ve already read the book, goes, I hope, some way to highlighting the power of Onetti’s short novel.

Larsen makes his entrance into Santa Maria ‘just after the rain had stopped, maybe heavier than before, more squat, apparently tamed, no different from anyone else.’ He is, one could say, a normal man, a man, as Onetti has it, who is no different from anyone else; and yet what happens to him, and more specifically, his own behaviour, is not normal at all. The real clue to the novel is in that word tamed. It’s a sad word, in my opinion. To be tamed one must, of course, have once been untamed; it is, then, a word that signals defeat, or submission, at least. It is this sense of being tamed or defeated that motivates Larsen to do the strange, possibly insane things that he does. What does he do? Well, he starts to pursue a local woman, Angelica Ines, almost for the sake of it, but, more importantly, he takes a job at a local shipyard. This shipyard, however, has been out of business for some time. Bizarrely, no one wants to acknowledge this fact, including the owner and his co-workers, and so Larsen continues to go to work; he makes plans for the business, he takes check of the stock, he fights for a competitive wage [a wage that he will never be paid].

At heart, this pretence, this act, this fiction, is merely a way of attempting to convince himself that his purposeless life has a purpose, that it may have a meaningful future, that his best, brightest days haven’t already been pissed into the wind and that it isn’t the case that all that remains is a long and tedious crawl towards death. He is now tamed, yes, but he is fighting to persuade himself that it isn’t the end of the world, that he still has something to live for. All of which sounds kind of depressing, I guess, and also kind of humorous [to me, at least]. But, be warned, Onetti is possibly the most straight-faced writer I have ever encountered. He doesn’t play for laughs. Someone like Nikolai Gogol, and others, would have teased out the comedy of this set-up by pitching a heroically sane Larsen into a river of stupidity, by surrounding him with morons, by making his responses to this stupidity and these morons increasingly frantic, increasingly exasperated. Not Onetti! Oh no, he sees your potential giggle and stamps on it, as though it were a spider.

In the other novel I have read by him, A Brief Life, the po-faced attitude, or authorial voice, feels oppressive, is actually dispiriting and tiring. The Shipyard works, however, because of the wonderful balance between that absurd set-up and the very serious treatment of it.

karamazov

THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV BY FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY

I’ve written quite a few gimmicky reviews, some more successful than others all of them brilliant. I’m generally quite a restless and dismissive person; I fall easily into ruts and troughs and I sometimes get tired of writing straightforward reviews, tired of my own voice. And, yet, at other times I feel, likewise, irritated by my own game-playing. So, when I came to thinking about reviewing this book I made an effort to try and come up with something I hadn’t done before within this limited medium. I chewed on it for a couple of days and then realised that I had nothing, other than an inclination to keep it as simple as possible. My thought was that if I have anything to offer in terms of insights into the book [and I probably haven’t] that it will only come through discussing how it moved me.

How did it move me? I’m glad you asked.  Well, there are very few novels that have touched me as personally as The Brothers Karamazov did, very few that have needled as many of my sensitive areas. Even on the most basic level, as a novel about family and the relationships between a parent and their children. I feel as though I have gabbled on endlessly, while I have been posting on here, about having been brought up by a single mother, about how I grew up around quite a lot of violence and unhappiness, but it had a profound effect upon me; there’s no doubt about that, although I feel quite ashamed about not having yet psychologically dealt with some of those issues. The patriarch in Dostoevsky’s novel, Fyodor, also a single parent, does something my mother didn’t do, he abandons his children, he neglects them, but, still, I understand how the way that you are raised can dominate your thoughts and feelings and your interactions with others later in life. These are mere preliminaries, of course, I’m not saying anything of interest, really, but I can’t overlook that I immediately felt sympathy for the brothers. The sins of the father are passed to the sons; that is quite evident here. Each of the brothers has in some way been damaged by his upbringing, by his father.

Having said that, I, rather unfortunately, saw something of myself in Fyodor too, although I guess, in a way, we are all meant to see something of ourselves in him. The father is a base sensualist, who refuses to take life very seriously. He pranks and gurns and makes a fool of himself, more than anything for his own entertainment. He is, like Caliban, the embodiment of man’s earthy character, his lascivious side. How much should one submit to this aspect of our nature? Dostoevsky seems to have wanted to explore that question. It’s a question I have asked myself many times. There’s something addictive about it, about letting yourself go, about submitting to the call of the body and luxuriating in the body of another. I’m sure, in this sense, I am not unique; like most young men I have indulged myself, perhaps, on occasion, too much [if you’re ever in Paddington station and want to have some passport pictures taken I would advise you to wipe down the seat in the photobooth there before sitting down, maybe wear some gloves or something. It’s some time ago now, but myself and a strange girl once did some pretty unsavory things in there]. I’ve checked myself these days, without becoming pious of course, but Fyodor doesn’t, and it leads to his downfall and death. When one considers that, Dostoevsky’s message seems pretty clear: complete submission to one’s base inclinations will ruin you.

The overarching theme of the novel appears to be that of conflict, both familial, literal or physical conflict, and, more importantly, the conflict inside man. Dimitri, one of Fyodor’s sons, is also a sensualist, but he wants to be a gentleman, at least some of the time. He, more than any other character, speaks about honour and virtue. Unlike his father, Dimitri is tormented by two opposing ways to approach life; he hasn’t given himself up entirely to hedonism or salacious pursuits, and does maintain a conscience. Yet, the pull of Grushenka, the lure of a good time, of satisfying oneself, is strong. He’s not the only one, either, who suffers from this kind of sensual yearning despite their better judgement, this kind of existential moral conflict, Lise does too, the cripple girl who agrees to marry Alyosha but then breaks with him and offers herself bodily to Ivan. She knows that Alyosha is a good man, a pure-hearted man, and yet she sees no passion in him, finds herself unable to give herself to him because he is too good, too pure. Once again i can identify, as I have actually been in this situation more than once myself. Desire, that hot grubby longing for someone, is too important, and too potent, to be forsaken completely. One may admire, almost revere, the angelic but that admiration can compromise physical intimacy.

Ivan’s conflict is between his philosophy and its practical application. He is the most outwardly philosophical, or intellectual, brother. He believes in the maxim: if God doesn’t exist then anything is permissible. This isn’t, despite being popularly labelled as such, nihilism. Nihilism is a belief in nothing. Ivan doesn’t believe in nothing, he believes, not in hedonism, but in moral freedom. Or, he would like to, in any case. The problem, however, is that Ivan cannot live with this freedom, he instinctively shies away from his own conclusions. Perhaps the most famous chapter in the novel is the one that features Ivan’s poem about the inquisitor and Jesus. In it, the inquisitor has Jesus arrested upon his return to earth and a dialogue takes place between them. I say dialogue, but, really, the inquisitor berates the son of God for his naivety, for condemning the human race to live with a freedom that they cannot endure, and that, really, they do not want. This part of the novel was exhilarating, because it chimes, absolutely, with my own feelings. I’ve long been of the opinion that although freedom is nice in theory, in practice we can’t cope with it. Indeed, I believe that western society began to collapse precisely at the point at which it started to reject religion and take more responsibility upon its own shoulders. I, myself, enjoy the benefits of this secular freedom and, yet, recognise that it is harmful to society as a whole. The inquisitor believes that mankind needs a focal point, a leader, a, well, dictator, to alleviate the pressure and suffering caused by absolute moral freedom.

“I love mankind, he said, “but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular.”

Finally, what of Alyosha? He is a monkish, Jesus-like figure. There are only glimmerings of the sensuality or the torment experienced by his bothers and father. I fully expect that many people will/do either actively dislike Alyosha or find it impossible to relate to him. Dostoevsky, apparently, wanted to write about a good man, and intended to return to Alyosha again in another novel. It is interesting, as an aside, that, seemingly within his own soul, there was that conflict we touched on earlier, for this is a writer who spent a lot of his career writing about murderers and immoral men and yet he, at the same time, also felt drawn to the virtuous. Cards on the table, I was slightly irritated by Alyosha at times or, at the very least, bored by him. That’s natural, I think. However, there is also something, well, quite lovely about his character. He isn’t pompous and judgemental, nor is he simple-minded, he is merely a nice person. And, make no mistake, he’s almost the only one in The Brothers Karamazov who isn’t utterly mental and wicked, and so he provides some shading, some contrast, he alleviates the tension somewhat. On that, one of the things I love about Russian literature is just how bat-shit crazy the characters are. Seriously, they are nearly all profoundly bi-polar. One second they are crying, the next they are laughing, then they are laughing while crying; half the time they want to kill someone, the other half they want to marry that same person; one moment they are biting someone’s finger, bashing them over the head, the next they are declaring them the finest soul on the planet! Indeed, I once dated a suicidal nympho and, I’m telling you, she was less high maintenance than the people who populate this book, was less highly strung. And, man, was she highly strung.

I’ve written, so far in this review, next to nothing about the plot. And, well, I don’t intend to. Everyone who picks up the book knows that it is a murder mystery of sorts, that the father is murdered and the son[s] are suspects. So, that is hardly worth mentioning or exploring in detail. What is worth mentioning is how the author presents his story. Dostoevsky was, by all accounts, a messy writer. Structurally his novels are often all over the place, but The Brothers Karamazov is, surprisingly, brilliantly paced and put together. It is certainly [and I’ve read all his major novels] his most carefully crafted work. The book is nearly 800 pages long and yet it never drags, it does, in fact, fairly zip along. Yes, the whole Zosima [the heiromonk] business is probably tedious for some, but he doesn’t stick around for very long. I’ve said previously that Dostoevsky’s novels read as though they were written by someone who is in the grip of a serious fever, and that manic energy is evident here too, but there is a greater than usual level of control on display.

Having said all that, the quality of Dostoevsky’s prose is still in question. He wasn’t a Flaubert or Proust, or even a Tolstoy. I have written so much about translations, and particularly about Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, elsewhere on this blog, and so I do not want to go over all that again, except to say, in summation, that I do not like modern translations [in general] and I like P&V least of all. Unfortunately, their version was the only one I have available to me at this time; therefore I do not have anything with which to compare it. If you accept that their work is faithful, then, well, the prose is a bit crap, or certainly in some respects. For one thing, their Dostoevsky had no particular talent for imagery. A lot of the time he [thankfully] avoids it, but when he does try his hand at a simile, say, his comparisons are obvious and trite. Furthermore, he was seemingly obsessed with certain words and phrases. If you glance down a random page of this translation and count the number of times he uses suddenly, as it were, little, and so on, you’ll run out of fingers before halfway. One of his most baffling authorial ticks was adding the adverb somehow to absolutely everything, regardless of whether it made sense or not. For example, he’d write X somehow smiled or X somehow left the room. What, is X in a wheelchair? Is leaving the room difficult? Have they got a problem with their mouth? No. Thing is though, I didn’t let any of this stuff get to me, or spoil my enjoyment. P&V’s translations usually turn me off completely, but not this time, because something this vital, this incredible, is impossible to ruin with wonky English, because no flawed translation [or less-than-stellar prose style] can prevent this from hitting me hard in the gut. The Brothers Karamazov is as crazy, beautiful, intelligent, and profound as anything you’re likely to read.

Moved? I was in bits.